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DOI: 10.1101/2023.03.16.23287373

Pandemic telehealth flexibilities for buprenorphine treatment: A synthesis of evidence and policy implications for expanding opioid use disorder care in the U.S.

N.Krawczyk B. Rivera C. King B. Dooling
Buprenorphine is a highly effective treatment for opioid use disorder and a critical tool for addressing the worsening U.S. overdose crisis. However, multiple barriers to treatment, including stringent federal regulations, have historically made this medication hard to reach for many who need it. In 2020, under the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, federal regulators substantially changed access to buprenorphine by allowing prescribers to initiate patients on buprenorphine via telehealth without first evaluating them in person. As the Public Health Emergency is set to expire in May of 2023, Congress and federal agencies can leverage extensive evidence from studies conducted during the wake of the pandemic to make evidence-based decisions on the regulation of buprenorphine going forward. To aid policy makers, this review synthesizes and interprets peer-reviewed research on the effect of buprenorphine flexibilities on uptake and implementation of telehealth, and its impact on OUD patient and prescriber experiences, access to treatment and health outcomes. Overall, our review finds that many prescribers and patients took advantage of telehealth, including the audio-only option, with a wide range of benefits and few downsides. As a result, federal regulators, including agencies and Congress, should continue non-restricted use of telehealth for buprenorphine initiation.