Prescribing of Opioid Analgesics and Buprenorphine for Opioid Use Disorder During the COVID-19 Pandemic.JAMA Netw Open. 2021 04 01; 4(4):e216147.JN
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted medical care, impacting prescribing of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder. Understanding these patterns can help address barriers to care.
To evaluate how prescribing of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic among both new and existing patients.
Design, Setting, and Participants
In this cross-sectional study, use of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder from March 18 to September 1, 2020, was projected using a national database of retail prescriptions from January 1, 2018, to March 3, 2020. Actual prescribing was compared with projected levels for all, existing, and new patients.
The data include prescriptions to patients independent of insurance status or type and cover 90% of retail prescriptions, 70% of mail-order prescriptions, and 70% of nursing home prescriptions.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Prescriptions for opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder. Outcomes included total number of prescriptions, total morphine milligram equivalents, mean morphine milligram equivalents per prescription, mean dispensed units per prescription, and number of patients filling prescriptions.
A total of 452 691 261 prescriptions for opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder were analyzed for 90 420 353 patients (50 921 535 female patients [56%]; mean [SD] age, 49  years). From March 18 to May 19, 2020, 1877 million total morphine milligram equivalents of opioid analgesics were prescribed weekly vs 1843 million projected, a ratio of 102% (95% prediction interval [PI], 94%-111%; P = .71). The weekly number of opioid-naive patients receiving opioids was 370 051 vs 564 929 projected, or 66% of projected (95% PI, 63%-68%; P < .001). Prescribing of buprenorphine was as projected for existing patients, while the number of new patients receiving buprenorphine weekly was 9865 vs 12 008 projected, or 82% (95% PI, 76%-88%; P < .001). From May 20 to September 1, 2020, opioid prescribing for new patients returned to 100% of projected (95% PI, 96%-104%; P = .95), while the number of new patients receiving buprenorphine weekly was 10 436 vs 11 613 projected, or 90% (95% PI, 83%-97%; P = .009).
Conclusions and Relevance
In this cross-sectional study, existing patients receiving opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder generally maintained access to these medications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opioid prescriptions for opioid-naive patients decreased briefly and then rebounded, while initiation of buprenorphine remained at a low rate through August 2020. Reductions in treatment entry may be associated with increased overdose deaths.