Are Rehab Centers Equipped With Meds To Treat Opioid Use Disorder?

By Lindsey Weedston 01/30/19

In spite of the availability of opioid addiction medications, many treatment centers have continued to rely only on abstinence programs and talk therapy. 

rehab center doctor talking to patient about opioid use disorder treatment

A study published in the January issue of Health Affairs found that only 36% of addiction treatment centers in the U.S. carry any of the medications approved for the treatment of opioid addiction. Not only that, but only 6% carry all three: buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone.

As the opioid crisis has exploded in the U.S. and abroad, cities are scrambling to combat spiking overdose deaths and the massive costs associated with the epidemic. In addition to law enforcement and education campaigns, increasing funds have been allocated to the development of medication that can treat opioid addiction.

For many years, methadone was the only option for those who needed more than abstinence, therapy, and rehabilitation programs to combat their powerful and relentless disease. Buprenorphine and naltrexone arrived on the scene in 1981 and 1984, respectively, and have shown promising results.

In spite of the availability of these drugs for decades, many addiction treatment centers have continued to rely only on abstinence programs and talk therapy. The study, led by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Professor Ramin Mojtabai, looked at 10,000 outpatient facilities in the U.S. via surveys collected between 2007 and 2016.

In 2007, only 20% of the centers offered even one of the medications, so at least some progress is being made in this respect. 

“Medication treatment (MT) is one of the few evidence-based strategies proposed to combat the current opioid epidemic,” reads the study abstract. “The findings highlight the persistent unmet need for MT nationally and the role of expansion of health insurance in the dissemination of these treatments.”

Image Source: NIDA

Lindsey Vuolo, associate director of health law and policy at the Center on Addiction, assured U.S. News & World Report that these medications work.

“Overall, approximately 50 percent of patients who receive medications for opioid addiction are successfully treated, while less than 10 percent of patients are successfully treated without these medications,” she said. At the same time, only 10 to 20% of people with substance use disorders seek any treatment at all.

Though Dr. Mojtabai feels that increased attention to the opioid crisis may continue the trend toward more treatment centers offering addiction-combating medications, Vuolo notes that most of the facilities offering these drugs are concentrated in wealthy urban and suburban areas, and is generally more pessimistic.

“The number of people receiving treatment has not changed significantly, even in light of the unrelenting opioid epidemic," said Vuolo. "I don't think research will show significant changes between 2016 and 2019 on a national scale.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: