Amid a nationwide opioid overdose epidemic, the White House announced on Wednesday an increase in the maximum number of patients that doctors may prescribe a restricted addiction treatment medicine, buprenorphine.
Buprenorphine is currently given to some 700,000 US painkiller or heroin addicts. The Obama administration estimates that raising the limit from 100 patients per physician to 275 patients will allow an extra 10,000-70,000 people to receive the medicine in next year.
The move comes as Congress considers the final version of a bill that will move to expand prevention and treatment options for the estimated 2.5 million Americans addicted to painkillers, such as Oxycontin, and heroin. The White House has called for Congress to add $1.1 billion in funding to that bill in recent months.
"We have to turn the tide on this epidemic," said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services director Sylvia Burwell at a Tuesday briefing for reporters on the new policy, which goes into effect in August. "I've met too many parents who have lost a child to overdose."
Overdoses claim more than 28,000 lives every year nationwide. The accidental overdose death of Prince in April from fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, served as the most recent, stark reminder of the scope of the problem.
A chemical cousin to opioid painkillers and heroin, buprenorphine works by soaking the brain’s opiate receptors while providing less euphoria. Doctors prescribe it to slowly wean patients off opioids, with research suggesting that it is one of the most effective treatments for addiction. That has long led to calls for raising the cap on patient prescription numbers first instituted in 2002.
"This is an improvement that has the potential for more individuals with opioid dependence to access [treatment]," Yale addiction specialist Dr. Gail D'Onofrio told BuzzFeed News.
However, some experts said the increase didn't go far enough: "We see this as a step in the right direction, but we don't believe it will end the problem of waiting lists," psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Clark of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) told BuzzFeed News.
Only about 12% of addicts who seek medical treatment for opioid addiction are getting it, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Clark said that allowing addiction center physician assistants and nurses to prescribe the medication, supported by the bill now being considered by Congress, would also ease waits for addicts seeking treatment.
Despite the enthusiasm for buprenorphine, it has been abused and stolen by some addicts, emerging as a street drug responsible for 21,000 emergency room visits in 2012. The FDA approved an implantable version of the medicine in May, aimed at patients already stable and recovering from addiction.
The administration also announced on Wednesday that Medicare and Medicaid payments to hospitals will be disconnected from patient ratings of pain care, seen since the 1990's as encouraging the overprescription of painkillers and sparking widespread addiction.
Expanding treatment for opioid addiction is one of the rare areas of bipartisan agreement in Washington and has been the subject of numerous hearing this year.