- Expanded telehealth services for substance use disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic lowered the odds of medically treated opioid overdoses among Medicare patients, according to a study published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.
- Greater access to telehealth visits also improved retention among Medicare patients taking medications for opioid use disorder, the study found.
- The findings lend support for permanent adoption of such policies and ensuring expanded access for substance use disorder treatment is “urgently needed,” the study’s authors wrote.
Government agencies relaxed a variety of rules at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, aiming to ensure people were still able to receive adequate medical care, even amid stay-at-home orders and reluctance visiting medical settings.
Those changes initially gave way to skyrocketing telehealth use, with more than two in five Medicare beneficiaries getting virtual care during the first year of the pandemic, according to an HHS Office of Inspector General report.
The new findings suggest virtual visits were effective in managing certain conditions, like substance use disorders, among Medicare beneficiaries.
Researchers looked at CMS data from two cohorts of adult Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries: the first collected before the pandemic, from September 2018 to February 2020, and the second during the pandemic, from September 2019 to February 2021.
Ultimately they found that a larger percentage of beneficiaries used telehealth services for substance use disorders during the pandemic than before the pandemic.
Beneficiaries also had greater access to and received more medications for opioid use disorder, including methadone, buprenorphine and extended-release naltrexone during the pandemic than before, the study found.