Lawmakers Support Expanding Access to Suboxone to Combat Opioid Epidemic

By Victoria Kim 07/08/15

A rise in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome raised concern in the nation's capital.

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An increasing number of pregnant women are seeking treatment for opiate addiction in Western New York, while hospitals are seeing more babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), The Buffalo News reports.

Although pregnant women are placed at the top of the waiting list, it could be several days, or even weeks, before they are seen, according to Paige Prentice, vice president of operations at Horizon Health Services, one of the region’s biggest providers of drug treatment and mental health services.

Horizon saw an increase from 29 expectant mothers seeking drug treatment three years ago to 126 by last year. They estimate that by the end of 2015, that number will reach 132. The state Health Department said that in Erie County alone, as many as 554 babies were born with NAS between 2010 and 2012.

This problem is nationwide, as the number of NAS babies has increased across the U.S. by about 300% between 2000 and 2009.

One solution that lawmakers have rallied for is expanding access to buprenorphine, also known as Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opiate dependence. Legislation introduced in May by Sen. Edward J. Markey would allow physicians to see a greater number of patients seeking buprenorphine, and allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe the drug for addiction treatment.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers co-sponsoring the legislation say that combined with behavioral therapy, effective medication-assisted treatment programs for opiate addiction can decrease overdose deaths, be cost-effective, and reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

“When effective medication-assisted treatment is made available, people’s lives can be saved,” said Sen. Markey. “Treatment for prescription drug and heroin addiction should not be harder to access than the actual drugs destroying lives and communities.”

The lawmakers believe Suboxone, though controversial, is a better alternative to “treatments limited to rapid detoxification or forced abstinence” which Rep. Brian Higgins, a co-sponsor of the companion bill in the House of Representatives, said “has proven to be inefficient and frequently lead to overdoses during the first month of abstinence.”

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