Key opioid treatment goes mostly to whites

(AP photo/Sue Ogrocki, file)

An addiction treatment drug that health officials have touted as a crucial part of the battle against the opioid epidemic is prescribed far more often to white patients.

A study authored by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at how often patients of different races and ethnicities were prescribed the treatment drug buprenorphine at doctors’ visits.

Getting the medicine at a doctor’s office is a selling point of the opioid-based treatment medication that has fewer federal regulations attached to it than methadone, which must be doled out at clinics and is more stigmatized. Patients can take buprenorphine in the privacy of their homes or doctor’s offices, and most patients on buprenorphine do receive the drug in “office-based settings,” the study authors wrote. Still, doctors need special permission to prescribe buprenorphine, something that isn’t required for the opioid painkillers that may have sparked the addiction crisis.

The study looked at more than 13 million doctors’ visits in which buprenorphine was prescribed between 2012 and 2015 and found that 12.7 million of those visits were by white patients, compared to just 363,000 for all other races.

That’s despite the fact that surveys suggest white patients are only slightly more likely than black patients to use heroin, or to take prescription pills without a doctor’s direction.

Patients prescribed buprenorphine were also more likely to have private insurance, or pay cash, than to have Medicaid. This held even after the Obamacare Medicaid expansion added more people to the public insurance rolls.

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