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How Telehealth Supported Opioid Use Disorder Care during COVID-19

March 31, 2023

Medicare beneficiaries with access to opioid use disorder-related telehealth services and medication had lower risk for fatal drug overdoses, according to a study published this week.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, highlighted the ways telehealth supported access to care during the pandemic, particularly for patients with opioid use disorder. Researchers compared data from 175,000 Medicare beneficiaries—from before and during the pandemic—to assess the ways this increased telehealth access affected outcomes.

“The results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with opioid use disorder, as well as the need to improve retention and access to medication treatment for opioid use disorder,” said Christopher M. Jones, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The report’s key findings:

  • Telehealth during the pandemic:  Medicare beneficiaries who started care during the pandemic and received opioid use disorder-related telehealth services had a 33 percent lower risk of a fatal drug overdose
  • In person-care:  Medicare beneficiaries who received medications for opioid use disorder from a treatment program and those who received buprenorphine in office-based settings also had reduced odds of a fatal drug overdose (59% and 38%, respectively)
  • By comparison:  The percentage of deaths due to drug overdose were similar between the pandemic and pre-pandemic groups

HAP continues to support the use of telehealth to support access to care, especially for patients with opioid use disorder and other behavioral health needs. This week, HAP submitted a comment letter to the Drug Enforcement Association to preserve patient access to buprenorphine and other critical medications classified as controlled substances via telehealth.

Additional information about the JAMA Psychiatry study is available online.