No Spike in Overdose Deaths From Relaxed Buprenorphine Regulations

Kelli Whitlock Burton

January 24, 2023

Measures enacted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase access to buprenorphine did not lead to an increase in the proportion of overdose deaths involving the drug, new research suggests.

Researchers say the data add weight to the argument for permanently adopting the pandemic-era prescribing regulations for buprenorphine, a treatment for opioid use disorder.

"We saw no evidence that increased availability of buprenorphine through the loosening of rules around prescribing and dispensing of buprenorphine during the pandemic increased overdose deaths," investigator Wilson Compton, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Wilson Compton

"This is reassuring that even when we opened up the doors to easier access to buprenorphine, we didn't see that most serious consequence," Compton said.

The findings were published online January 20 in JAMA Network Open.

Cause and Effect

Federal agencies relaxed prescribing regulations for buprenorphine in March 2020 to make it easier for clinicians to prescribe the drug via telemedicine and for patients to take the medication at home.

The number of buprenorphine prescriptions has increased since that change, with more than 1 million people receiving the medication in 2021 from retail pharmacies in the United States.

However, questions remained about whether increased access would lead to an increase in buprenorphine-involved overdose.

Researchers with NIDA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed data from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System, a CDC database that combines medical examiner and coroner reports and postmortem toxicology testing.

The study included information about overdose deaths from July 2019 to June 2021 in 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Between July 2019 and June 2021, there were 1955 buprenorphine-involved overdose deaths, which accounted for 2.2% of all drug overdose deaths and 2.6% of opioid-involved overdose deaths.

However, researchers went beyond overall numbers and evaluated details from coroner's and medical examiner reports, something they had not done before.

"For the first time we looked at the characteristics of decedents from buprenorphine because this has not been studied in this type of detail with a near national sample," Compton said.

"That allowed us to look at patterns of use of other substances as well as the circumstances that are recorded at the death scene that are in the data set," he added.

Important Insights

Reports from nearly all buprenorphine-involved deaths included the presence of at least one other drug, compared with opioid overdose deaths that typically involved only one drug.

"This is consistent with the pharmacology of buprenorphine being a partial agonist, so it may not be as fatal all by itself as some of the other opioids," Compton said.

Deaths involving buprenorphine were less likely to include illicitly manufactured fentanyls, and other prescription medications were more often found on the scene, such as antidepressants.

Compared with opioid decedents, buprenorphine decedents were more likely to be women, age 35 to 44, white, and receiving treatment for mental health conditions, including for substance use disorder (SUD).

These kinds of characteristics provide important insights about potential ways to improve safety and clinical outcomes, Compton noted.

"When we see things like a little higher rate of SUD treatment and this evidence of other prescription drugs on the scene, and some higher rates of antidepressants in these decedents than I might have expected, I'm very curious about their use of other medical services outside of substance use treatment, because that might be a place where some interventions could be implemented," he said.

As reported at the time by Medscape Medical News, a similar study published last year showed pandemic-era policy changes that allowed methadone to be taken at home was followed by a decrease in methadone-related overdose deaths.

The new findings are consistent with those results, Compton said.

"Chipping Away" at Stigma

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, O. Trent Hall, DO, assistant professor of addiction medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, said that although he welcomed the findings, they aren't unexpected.

"Buprenorphine is well established as a safe and effective medication for opioid use disorder and as a physician who routinely cares for patients in the hospital after opioid overdose, I am not at all surprised by these results," said Hall, who was not involved with the research.

"When my patients leave the hospital with a buprenorphine prescription, they are much less likely to return with another overdose or serious opioid-related medical problem," he added.

US drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 for the first time in 2021, and most were opioid-related. Although the latest data from the CDC shows drug overdose deaths have been declining slowly since early 2022, the numbers remain high.

Buprenorphine is one of only two drugs known to reduce the risk of opioid overdose. While prescriptions have increased since 2020, the medication remains underutilized, despite its known effectiveness in treating opioid use disorder.

Hall noted that research such as the new study could help increase buprenorphine's use.

"Studies like this one chip away at the stigma that has been misapplied to buprenorphine," he said. "I hope this article will encourage more providers to offer buprenorphine to patients with opioid use disorder."

The study was funded internally by NIDA and the CDC. Compton reported owning stock in General Electric, 3M, and Pfizer outside the submitted work. Hall has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(1):e2251856. Full article

Kelli Whitlock Burton is a reporter for Medscape Medical News covering psychiatry and neurology.

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