Opioid Treatment Program Telehealth Rules Finalised By HHS

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The HHS on February 1 went ahead and finalized a rule that will enable the opioid treatment programs to start some medication treatment by way of telehealth.

Under the rule, such providers will be able to start treatment with buprenorphine by way of audio-only or audio-visual telehealth. They can start methadone treatment through an audio-visual platform, but not via an audio-only option but, because of its higher risk profile, said the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration- SAMHSA.

The regulation goes on to make permanent telehealth flexibilities that started off during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to preserve access to care and, at the same time, also tackle a worsening opioid epidemic.

The rule goes on to mark the first substantial changes to treatment as well as delivery standards at opioid treatment programs in over 20 years, SAMHSA said.

The updates, which go on to include expanding the eligibility for patients in order to receive take-home doses of methadone as well as allowing more provider types so as to order medications, look to lessen the stigma and also expand care access, which can be issues to treating people with substance usage disorders.

It is well to be noted that telehealth can be a significant aid on that front, say experts. Virtual care usage rose during the COVID pandemic, enabled by loosened regulations that helped patients receive care while at the same time maintaining social distance.

Apparently, some research has gone on to show that telehealth can very well expand who can access mental healthcare as well as opioid use disorder treatment, thereby preventing overdoses. Provisional data goes on to suggest that drug overdose deaths touched almost 107,000 during the 12 months ending in August 2023, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the HHS assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, while this rule change may as well help anyone requiring the treatment, it will be particularly effective for those who happen to stay in rural areas or have low income, for whom reliable transportation can very well be a challenge, if not impossible.

Interestingly, the regulators have made other alterations that could go on to enhance access to substance use disorder treatment. Across the pandemic, the Drug Enforcement Administration went on to grant exceptions to the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008, which needed most practitioners to have a minimum of one in-person assessment prior to prescribing controlled substances.

The DEA as well as the HHS went on to announce in the fall that they would go ahead and extend pandemic-era prescribing rules across 2024. Advocates have already gone ahead and cheered the extension, arguing that in-person requirements limit access, especially for opioid use disorder care.