BACKGROUND: The COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to severely disrupt the delivery of methadone and buprenorphine, as social distancing and other public health regulations made in-person services difficult to maintain. Federal and state regulators changed requirements regarding the dispensing of medication and in-person counseling at opioid treatment programs. Understanding staff and patient reactions to these changes can help determine whether they should be maintained.
METHODS: We interviewed 25 directors of OTP programs located throughout the United States. Note takers wrote summaries of each interview which were coded for topics and themes covered in the interview guide, including changes to clinic practices, take-home medications, telehealth, patient and staff reactions to new COVID-related protocols, and financial concerns for programs.
RESULTS: Most programs rapidly incorporated new regulatory requirements, and directors were generally positive about the impact of increased take-home doses of medication and increased reliance on telehealth. Some directors voiced concerns about these changes, and some reported that patients missed the daily clinical contact with staff. Directors also suggested that more time was needed to assess the full impact of these changes. Financial impacts varied, although many directors were quick to point out that the ongoing opioid epidemic has delivered a steady stream of new patients, thus offsetting potential financial losses.
CONCLUSIONS: Overall, this study demonstrated the generally positive view of OTP directors to the regulatory changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. More time is needed to fully evaluate the impact of these changes on clinical outcomes.
The impact of COVID-19 on opioid treatment programs in the United States
Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 228, 109049. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2021.109049. PMCID: PMC8461004.