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5 Insights on Rural Health and Opioid Use Disorder

Progress, challenges in the effort to reduce overdoses

February 16, 2022

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania hosted a hearing today examining strategies to combat opioid addiction and the overdose crisis in rural communities.

This morning, state agency officials, treatment and prevention providers, and public health specialists discussed the challenges facing Pennsylvania communities to treat patients with substance use disorders and to reduce overdose deaths. The testimony included the latest trends in medication-assisted treatment (MAT), telehealth, and other initiatives to address the crisis.

Real-time access to treatment is critical, said Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center and UPMC Health Plan Substance Use Disorder Services. New delivery models are focused on directing patients to resources and making it easier for them to receive treatment.

“We need to be able to connect patients to ongoing care,” Dr. Lynch said.

The testimony addressed the following key themes:

  • Ongoing trends:  Pennsylvania’s overdose death rates rose by 16.4 percent during 2020. State officials said the rates appeared to be lower for 2021, but the official count is still pending
  • Workforce challenges:  A lack of behavioral health/counseling training programs in rural areas contributes to challenges recruiting staff in these communities. Additional initiatives are needed to support recruitment and retention in the field
  • Legislative action:  State lawmakers are evaluating legislation related to harm-reduction practices, such as syringe services programs and legalizing fentanyl test strips, to help reduce overdose deaths 
  • Evolving care:  MAT treatments—coupled with counseling and behavioral health therapies—help patients with substance use disorders in their recovery. These treatments are individually tailored to meet patients’ needs
  • Certified recovery specialists:  Specialists with firsthand experience provide valuable insights and support to patients receiving treatment for substance use disorder
  • Telehealth beyond COVID-19:  Even before the pandemic, telehealth served as a key tool to reach patients in rural areas and connect them to services. Access to audio-only services has been useful during the pandemic, especially for patients in rural communities

To become permanent, many pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities would need extension at the federal level, said Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith. Waivers at the state level and establishing a payment structure for telehealth are important next steps.

HAP and Pennsylvania’s hospitals are committed to bolstering Pennsylvania’s behavioral health system and care for patients with substance use disorders.

Through the HAP Opioid Learning Action Network, HAP has worked with Pennsylvania’s behavioral health community to identify, create, and disseminate promising practices to increase the number of patients entering evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder and to reduce overdose deaths.

More information about today’s hearing is available online.