House lawmakers are trying to eliminate a waiver requirement that clinicians must clear before they can prescribe buprenorphine to patients for opioid addiction.
Under current law and regulations, clinicians need to apply for a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to prescribe the medication-assisted treatment for addiction even though they can readily prescribe it for pain. Several state health departments have asked for federal intervention as they continue to see residents die as a result of the opioid epidemic.
The bipartisan bill— led by Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) and Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.)— follows an April letter from myriad health officials to HHS Secretary Alex Azar seeking "more aggressive and more comprehensive measures of reform" to expand use of medications like buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone.
The states represented on the letter included New York, New Mexico, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Indiana and Oregon. The officials said ideally they'd like to see legislation to do away with the waiver process altogether.
"Our understanding of the potential role of—and appropriate prescribing practices for—buprenorphine has grown substantially," they wrote, noting that they have learned the drug is a highly effective treatment even without "comprehensive services."
According to Tonko's office, France passed a similar law to override a special waiver program and saw its opioid overdose death rate decline by 79% over four years.
In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, including from opioids. While Congress boosted medication-assisted treatment in the 2018 legislative package aimed at the opioid epidemic. But as the addiction crisis accelerated over the past several years, the medical community has been relatively slow in adopting this method.
The proposed legislation would also require the HHS secretary to run a nationwide campaign to spread the word about the policy among the medical community and encourage clinicians to introduce opioid addiction treatment into their practices.