Senators Team Up To Propose Expanded Access to Buprenorphine

By McCarton Ackerman 06/06/16

The bipartisan proposal calls for the Department of Health Services to increase the number of patients a doctor can treat with buprenorphine to 500.  

Senators Team Up To Propose Expanded Access to Buprenorphine
Buprenorphine Photo via

A group of 22 senators have joined forces to urge the Department of Health and Human Services to boost the number of patients that physicians can treat with buprenorphine (the main ingredient in Suboxone) by a five-fold increase.

Currently, physicians are limited to treating 30 patients at a time with buprenorphine in the first year of being certified to prescribe the drug. After that, they're limited to 100 patients at a time. Although the HHS proposed increasing this limit to 200 patients by the third year of prescribing, the senators' latest proposal asks for a 500-person limit.

The senators' letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell stated that the current 100-patient cap is one of several factors that has created a huge disparity between "those who can prescribe opioids for treatment of pain and those who can prescribe treatments for opioid use disorder." They argued that raising the limit to 200 “will be unlikely to make the meaningful impact needed in the marketplace to make buprenorphine a viable treatment option for patients,” noting that just 10% of the 23 million Americans with a substance use disorder receive care in any given year.

“We don’t restrict doctors from prescribing life-saving medication for any other medical condition, so it makes no sense to limit medication-assisted therapies for those suffering from the disease of opioid addiction,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a press release. “The current artificial caps on treatment not only hurt access, but they also reinforce the stigma that accessing treatment for substance use disorders should be different than for any other chronic illness.”

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first-ever buprenorphine implant designed to treat opioid dependence. Probuphine consists of four tiny rods—each roughly the size of a matchstick—and is typically inserted beneath the skin in the upper arm. The device, designed for “clinically stable patients,” delivers low to moderate daily doses of buprenorphine over a six-month period and is intended to be part of a multi-pronged treatment approach that includes psychosocial support and counseling. The implant is expected to be available to the public as early as this month.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.