A pandemic rule change could make it easier to get treatment for opioid addiction in Alaska


a woman sits at a desk behind a reception counter
Medical assistant Sarah Martin sits on the reception desk of Ultimate Choice, a medicine assisted dependancy remedy clinic in Juneau. (Kavitha George/KTOO)

Alaska medical doctors have short-term permission from the state to make use of telehealth to prescribe a managed, however life-saving drug used to deal with opioid dependancy. State officers say they’d wish to make the change everlasting.

As soon as a affected person says they’re prepared for remedy, physicians like Dr. Janice Sheufelt wish to get them the medicine that forestalls withdrawal signs as quickly as potential.

“Truthfully, even just a few days makes a distinction due to how many individuals are dying from opioid overdoses in our state,” she mentioned.

She bought to sidestep a major barrier to take care of individuals with opioid addictions throughout the pandemic — the clinic go to. That’s, till February when the state’s emergency order lapsed and the state tightened restrictions on telehealth.

That meant she and her sufferers needed to schedule an in-person appointment with one other physician to prescribe the drug, buprenorphine. It’s additionally referred to as by its model title, Suboxone. An additional step, and additional time, when withdrawal signs can manifest inside hours.

“Each affected person I communicate to, they inform me about their pals or relations who’ve died. So I actually assume time is of the essence, and even just a few days could make a distinction. I’ve had individuals overdose and die who had been ready to get into remedy,” mentioned Dr. Sheufelt.

Final week, the state’s medical board accepted an emergency order from the state well being division to reinstate buprenorphine prescriptions by telehealth for 120 days. However there was a four-month interval the place suppliers needed to arrange in-person appointments to get prescriptions.

In that point, Dr. Sheufelt says greater than 200 sufferers requested to start out medicated remedy at her clinic alone.

The lapse got here at a vital time: hospital visits for overdoses involving heroin have elevated dramatically within the state since March. Overdose visits from March to Might this 12 months are greater than double final 12 months’s visits over the identical time period.

Officers from the state’s medical board declined recorded interviews however wrote in a press release that the board will work to make the change everlasting and permit Alaska medical doctors to prescribe and renew prescriptions for buprenorphine with out an in-person appointment.

“Remedy is a key a part of serving to individuals who have opioid use dysfunction in stopping,” mentioned Jeannie Monk, a senior Vice President on the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing House Affiliation, or ASHNAH.

She testified earlier than the medical board on behalf of Alaska physicians who mentioned the change is important to assist their sufferers. She mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated an actual want.

“As a result of individuals couldn’t go in to see medical doctors and folks in rural areas couldn’t journey, giving them entry to actually life-saving medicine by telehealth has been important,” she mentioned.

Buprenorphine sometimes requires an in-person go to for a prescription as a result of it’s categorized as a managed substance. It really works to dam withdrawal signs however doesn’t get customers excessive like heroin or fentanyl do.

“It took fairly some time to sort of get the State Medical Board to sort of perceive the state of affairs and take motion,” Monk mentioned.

Although present state and federal regulation don’t enable that sort of drug to be prescribed with out an in-person go to, the state’s medical board is working to maintain the exemption in place. It cites excessive charges of opioid overuse, overdose and dying within the state as causes it would work in direction of the everlasting change.


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