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AMA urges change after dramatic increase in illicit opioid fatalities


In the past 5 years, there has been a significant drop in the use of prescription opioids and in deaths associated with such use; but at the same time there’s been a dramatic increase in fatalities involving illicit opioids and stimulants, a new report from the American Medical Association (AMA) Opioid Task Force shows.

Dr. Patrice Harris is presdient of the AMA

Dr. Patrice Harris

Although the medical community has made some important progress against the opioid epidemic, with a 37% reduction in opioid prescribing since 2013, illicit drugs are now the dominant reason why drug overdoses kill more than 70,000 people each year, the report says.

In an effort to improve the situation, the AMA Opioid Task Force is urging the removal of barriers to evidence-based care for patients who have pain and for those who have substance use disorders (SUDs). The report notes that “red tape and misguided policies are grave dangers” to these patients.

“It is critically important as we see drug overdoses increasing that we work towards reducing barriers of care for substance use abusers,” Task Force Chair Patrice A. Harris, MD, said in an interview.

“At present, the status quo is killing far too many of our loved ones and wreaking havoc in our communities,” she said.

Dr. Harris noted that “a more coordinated/integrated approach” is needed to help individuals with SUDs.

“It is vitally important that these individuals can get access to treatment. Everyone deserves the opportunity for care,” she added.

Dramatic increases

The report cites figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicate the following regarding the period from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2019:

  • Deaths involving illicitly manufactured and fentanyl analogues increased from 5,766 to 36,509.
  • Deaths involving stimulants such as increased from 4,402 to 16,279.
  • Deaths involving cocaine increased from 5,496 to 15,974.
  • Deaths involving heroin increased from 10,788 to 14,079.
  • Deaths involving prescription opioids decreased from 12,269 to 11,904.

The report notes that deaths involving prescription opioids peaked in July 2017 at 15,003.

Some good news

In addition to the 37% reduction in opioid prescribing in recent years, the AMA lists other points of progress, such as a large increase in prescription drug monitoring program registrations. More than 1.8 million physicians and other healthcare professionals now participate in these programs.

Also, more physicians are now certified to treat opioid use disorder. More than 85,000 physicians, as well as a growing number of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, are now certified to treat patients in the office with buprenorphine. This represents an increase of more than 50,000 from 2017.

Access to naloxone is also increasing. More than 1 million naloxone prescriptions were dispensed in 2019 – nearly double the amount in 2018. This represents a 649% increase from 2017.

“We have made some good progress, but we can’t declare victory, and there are far too many barriers to getting treatment for substance use disorder,” Dr. Harris said.

“Policymakers, public health officials, and insurance companies need to come together to create a system where there are no barriers to care for people with substance use disorder and for those needing pain medications,” she added.

At present, prior authorization is often needed before these patients can receive medication. “This involves quite a bit of administration, filling in forms, making phone calls, and this is stopping people getting the care they need,” said Dr. Harris.

“This is a highly regulated environment. There are also regulations on the amount of methadone that can be prescribed and for the prescription of buprenorphine, which has to be initiated in person,” she said.


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