WASHINGTON (AP) — The government's top drug abuse experts are struggling to find ways to expand use of a medicine that is considered the best therapy for treating heroin and painkiller addiction.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan on Wednesday pressed officials from the White House, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and other agencies to increase access to buprenorphine, a medication which helps control drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It remains underused a decade after its launch.
First approved in 2002 — under a law crafted by Levin and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch — buprenorphine was hailed as a major advance over methadone, the decades-old standard for addiction treatment. Among other advantages, buprenorphine has a lower risk of overdose and milder side effects. It can be prescribed as a take-home medication in the privacy of a doctor's office, helping patients avoid the stigma of going to a methadone clinic.
But even amid a national epidemic of drug abuse and addiction, access to buprenorphine remains limited by federal restrictions, inconsistent insurance coverage and a lack of acceptance by physicians.
"As long as we have too few doctors certified to prescribe bupe, we will be missing a major weapon in the fight against the ravages of addiction," Levin told the forum, which also included patients and non-government medical experts.
Only 4 percent of the 625,000 U.S doctors who are eligible to prescribe buprenorphine have received certification to use the drug, which comes as a pill or a film that dissolves under the tongue. Certification requires an eight hour training course in addiction medicine.
Meanwhile an estimated 2.5 million Americans are addicted to prescription painkillers or heroin, known collectively as opioids, and less than half are receiving medical treatment.
"It's somewhat paradoxical that physicians will use opioids to create a problem, but there seems to be reluctance to help address the problem," said Dr. Westley Clark of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Clark and other experts noted that there is still a stigma attached to treating opioid addiction and many physicians are uninterested in learning how to use drugs like buprenorphine.
Government officials agreed that more training is needed to familiarize both medical students and experienced physicians with science showing that addiction can be successfully treated with medication.