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Improving access to buprenorphine

November 1, 2007
by Doug Nemecek, MD, MBA
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A managed care company overcomes several obstacles to make this treatment more available

Studies have shown that the prevalence of prescription opioid abuse has risen dramatically in the past several years. In 2004, the number of Americans reporting abuse of prescription medications was higher than the combined total of those reporting abuse of cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, and heroin, and direct healthcare costs for opioid abusers are approximately eight times higher than those of nonabusers, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Congress intended to increase the number of people willing to seek and adhere to treatment by integrating opioid treatment into the mainstream medical setting by passing the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000. The law provides a way for physicians to integrate treatment of opioid dependence into general outpatient medicine. Buprenorphine, an orally administered medication marketed by Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, Inc., under the brand names Suboxone and Subutex, was approved by the FDA in 2002 for opioid dependence treatment, and it can be prescribed and monitored on an outpatient basis with the medication taken in the privacy of a patient's home.

Yet following completion of a 2006 review, CIGNA Behavioral Health (CBH) found very little utilization of buprenorphine for long-term maintenance treatment, and CBH struggled with finding available providers to manage this treatment when a member required or requested it. Thus, CBH set out to understand the barriers and to find solutions that would improve access to and availability of outpatient buprenorphine treatment for opioid dependence.

In 2003, CBH changed from being a traditional behavioral utilization management company to an operational foundation grounded with a philosophy of care advocacy. CBH's care advocacy philosophy means it supports evidence-based treatments, as well as working to eliminate barriers to access and improving outreach, education, and support to help engage members in effective treatments.

Buprenorphine tablets.Photo courtesy of
Buprenorphine tablets. Photo courtesy of

Members with a diagnosis of opioid dependence have provided a great opportunity to demonstrate this philosophy. This philosophy has helped initiate the process of working collaboratively with buprenorphine's manufacturer, our provider network, and our members to improve patient satisfaction and optimize clinical outcomes. CBH ended up becoming the first managed behavioral health organization to provide coverage for office-based buprenorphine induction.

The Gap in Treatment

When CBH first applied the care advocacy philosophy to how we manage opioid dependence, we revealed a gap in medical systems. When we examined the percentage of our inpatient admissions due to a diagnosis of nonalcohol drug dependence, the number increased from a little more than 6% in 2004 to more than 9% in 2006. Buprenorphine provides an opportunity to draw more opioid-dependent patients into outpatient treatment, without the stigma of receiving treatment at an opioid treatment program (usually a methadone clinic). So following buprenorphine's introduction, one would expect the number of people who require inpatient treatment for opioid dependence to decrease, as more people could obtain appropriate, effective treatment on an outpatient basis.

In 2006, when CBH reviewed the demographic and diagnostic data from 2002 to 2005, we found that the percentage of our membership receiving treatment for a diagnosis of opioid dependence had remained constant. The data also showed the percentage of members with a diagnosis of opioid dependence requiring inpatient treatment remained constant as well. Our care managers reported that facilities were using buprenorphine as part of an inpatient detoxification protocol, but rarely were these facilities and patients considering buprenorphine maintenance treatment. When we did receive a request for outpatient maintenance treatment, we frequently had a difficult time locating a provider in our network who would accept the referral.

Working to Improve Access

In 2006, CBH convened a workgroup to develop a plan to increase access to and availability of outpatient buprenorphine treatment for our members. CBH also sought to integrate this treatment and process for access into our clinical and operational practices.

CBH's pharmacy utilization department reviewed the number of our members receiving buprenorphine treatment for opioid dependence. As we expected, only a few outpatient prescriptions for buprenorphine were being filled for our membership. As a first step in determining how to improve access and availability for our members, we reached out to our provider network to learn what the current practices were with the use of buprenorphine.

"Comparing our contracted network of psychiatrists against the Drug Enforcement Administration's [DEA] list of buprenorphine-waivered physicians [i.e., those allowed to prescribe the drug], we found that only 9% of our physician network had obtained the waiver," says Network Development Specialist Sue Knutson. "To develop a better understanding of this issue, we sent each of these waivered physicians a survey to determine their current clinical practice, their billing practice, and their interactions with managed care organizations around buprenorphine treatment. This included specific questions about the various phases of outpatient treatment, including the initial assessment, induction, and maintenance visits. We had a very enthusiastic response, with 25% of our buprenorphine-waivered physicians returning the survey."