Drug addiction doesn’t care where it strikes.
It might hit someone in a major metropolitan area with access to a wealth of medical resources. But it’s just as likely to affect someone in a rural area without access to proper treatment services.
Fortunately there’s new hope for people in that second category, at least in one part of the country. According to Kaiser Health News, a new federal program is using telemedicine to connect patients with doctors who know how to treat addiction.
The $1.4 million pilot program — targeting areas in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee comes at a time when prescription painkiller addiction is reaching epidemic heights.
“This is an obvious potential direction to move in,” said Colleen Barry, a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of its Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research, told KHN. “There are some real opportunities — and some pretty significant challenges.”
States like Virginia are prime targets for the program. Nearly 5 percent of the state’s population abused prescription opioids last year, and the state marked 600 deaths connected to the drugs between 2015 and 2016.
And some of those deaths happened in counties with little counseling options, which is why telemedicine can be so vital.
So far, patients have welcomed the service, although it’s not without both logistical and regulatory obstacles, KHN says.
“For starters, the meds needed to treat opioid addiction require complex in-person procedures and regular follow-up, limiting what can be done remotely,” said Dr. Richard Merkel, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral science at the University of Virginia, one of the pilot sites.
Prescribing and monitoring medications has to happen face to face, by a doctor licensed by the DEA. The university is considering regional centers where patients can go to get the medications they need as they come off opioids.
Another challenge is payment. While the federal funding covers technology, it doesn’t pay for the treatment itself, leading hospitals to work with different insurers to make sure the telemedicine is covered. This can leave a lot of patients paying out of pocket for their care. Many are uninsured to begin with.
“We’re trying to hire more faculty and advanced nurses, but unless there’s reimbursement at some level, we just can’t do that,” Merkel said. “All of this becomes just a nice idea.”
For those in post recovery and in need of counseling, Recovery Care Partner provides video chat resources for sober companions.