Medication-Assisted Treatment Options Limited For Medicare Recipients

By Kelly Burch 06/29/18

“Medicare beneficiaries have among the fastest growing rate of opioid use disorder, but they don’t currently have coverage for the most effective treatment,” says one official.

Distraught patient talking to doctor

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction and dependence is now seen as the gold standard of care by many addiction treatment professionals, but barriers to treatment make it difficult for many Americans over the age of 65 to access medication-assisted treatment on Medicare. 

According to a report by the Associated Press, Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors, will not cover treatment with methadone, one of the oldest and most effective forms of medication-assisted treatment.

The program covers buprenorphine, another form of MAT, but only a fraction of doctors who accept Medicare have obtained a federal waiver that allows them to prescribe buprenorphine. 

This combination leaves a vulnerable population at risk. The AP reports that 300,000 Medicare patients have been diagnosed with opioid addiction, but only 81,000 prescriptions for buprenorphine have been written for Medicare patients. 

“Medicare beneficiaries have among the highest and fastest growing rate of opioid use disorder, but they don’t currently have coverage for the most effective treatment,” said Rep. George Holding, a Republican from North Carolina. Holding is sponsoring a bill that would recommend changes to Medicare’s policy toward methadone. 

Some patients on Medicaid can access methadone treatment, either by paying about $80 per week out of pocket or qualifying for state programs that cover the treatment. However, worrying about how and if their treatment will be covered can take a real toll on their mental health. 

Joseph Purvis, a former heroin and prescription painkiller user, said he became depressed when he realized that Medicare might not cover his methadone treatment. “I was terrified that I might have to leave the program,” he said. “There’s no way I wanted to go back to addiction on the streets.” 

Luckily, he was able to access treatment, thanks to a state program. However, he believes that Medicaid should cover this important treatment. “Some people think of methadone as a crutch for addiction but it’s not,” Purvis said. “It’s a tool that allows people to live a somewhat normal life.”

The issue of access to MAT is especially important given that Medicaid just passed regulations drastically tightening access to opioid pills. The restrictions passed despite objections from some medical professionals who said that many seniors are on high levels of opioids that need to be carefully reduced. 

“The decision to taper opioids should be based on whether the benefits for pain and function outweigh the harm for that patient,” Dr. Joanna L. Starrels, an opioid researcher and associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in response to the regulations. “That takes a lot of clinical judgment. It’s individualized and nuanced. We can’t codify it with an arbitrary threshold.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.