Travel Times to Opioid Addiction Programs Drive a Lack of Access to Treatment

Megan Brooks

July 20, 2020

If US pharmacies were permitted to dispense methadone for opioid use disorder (OUD) it would improve national access to treatment and save costs, new research suggests.

Under current federal regulations, only opioid treatment programs (OTPs) are permitted to dispense methadone maintenance treatment. This stands in sharp contrast to how methadone is dispensed in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, where patients can obtain daily doses of methadone maintenance from community pharmacies.

"It's challenging for patients in many parts of the US to access methadone treatment," Robert Kleinman, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California, said in a JAMA Psychiatry podcast.

"It's important for policymakers to consider strategies that enhance access to methadone maintenance treatment, in that it's associated with large reductions in mortality from opioid use disorder. One possibility is to use pharmacies as dispensing sites," said Kleinman.

The study was published online July 15 in JAMA Psychiatry.

An Hour vs 10 Minutes

Kleinman examined how pharmacy-based dispensing would affect drive times to the nearest OTP for the general US population. The analysis included all 1682 OTP locations, 69,475 unique pharmacy locations, and 72,443 census tracts.

The average drive time to OTPs in the US is 20.4 minutes vs a drive time of 4.5 minutes to pharmacies.

Driving times to OTPs are particularly long in nonmetropolitan counties while pharmacies remain "relatively easily accessible" in nonmetropolitan counties, he said.

In "micropolitan" counties, for example, the drive time to OTPs was 48.4 minutes vs 7 minutes to pharmacies. In the most rural counties, the drive time to OTPs is 60.9 minutes vs 9.1 minutes to pharmacies.

"This suggests that pharmacy-based dispensing has the potential to reduce urban or rural inequities, and access to methadone treatment," Kleinman said.

In a mileage cost analysis, Kleinman determined that the average cost of one-way trip to an OTP in the US is $3.12 compared with 45 cents to a pharmacy. In the most rural counties, the average cost one-way is $11.10 vs $1.27 to a pharmacy.

Kleinman says decreasing drive times, distance, and costs for patients seeking methadone treatment by allowing pharmacies to dispense the medication may help achieve several public health goals.

"Patients dissuaded from obtaining treatment because of extended travel, particularly patients with disabilities, unreliable access to transportation, or from rural regions, would have reduced barriers to care. Quality of life may be increased for the more than 380,000 individuals currently receiving methadone treatment if less time is spent commuting," he writes.

Time for Change

The authors of an accompanying editorial, say the "regulatory burden" on methadone provision in the US "effectively prohibits the integration of methadone prescribing into primary care, even in rural communities where there may exist no specialty substance use treatment options."

However, federal and state agencies are starting to take action to expand geographic access to methadone treatment, note Paul Joudrey, MD, MPH, and coauthors from Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has proposed allowing mobile methadone units, and Ohio and Kentucky have passed laws to allow greater use of federally qualified health centers and other facilities for methadone dispensing.

"While these policies are welcomed, the results here by Kleinman and others suggest they fall short of needed expansion if patients' rights to evidence-based care for OUD are to be ensured. Importantly, even with broad adoption of mobile or pharmacy-based dispensing, patients would still face a long drive time to a central OTP before starting methadone," Joudrey and colleagues write.

In their view, the only way to address this barrier is to modify federal law, and this "should be urgently pursued in the context of the ongoing overdose epidemic. It is time for policies that truly support methadone treatment for OUD as opposed to focusing on diversion."

The study had no specific funding. Kleinman and the editorial writers have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Psychiatry. Published online July 15, 2020. Abstract, Editorial

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