Black and brown Americans less likely to get treatment for opioid addiction

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The COVID-19 pandemic caused racial disparities in access to treatment for opioid use disorder, a new study shows.

Black and brown Americans were less likely to seek treatment than white Americans.

News 8 spoke with Dr. Jerome Adams, WISH-TV’s medical expert and former U.S. surgeon general, about this research. 

Mary Gillis: A new study published in JAMA shows the pandemic worsened racial and ethnic disparities in the use of medications to treat patients with opioid use disorder. Talk to me about the study. What did they find?

Dr. Jerome Adams: Well, this was a study of patients who filled over a million and a half prescriptions to treat opioid use disorder. Many people need additional help to transition off addictive drugs like heroin and fentanyl. The main two are buprenorphine and naltrexone. And these are the two mainstays of what we call medication assisted treatment. Now, what’s important for people to really understand is that the pandemic disrupted care in all sorts of ways. Cancer screenings went down. Childhood vaccinations went down. This is answering the question as to whether people’s access to medicated assisted treatment went down and the study found that it did. 

Gillis: Dr. Adams, are you surprised by these results? The pandemic had an impact, but we’ve also talked about barriers to treatment–environmental factors, financial costs. Could these also be underlying factors?

Adams: I wasn’t surprised by the results of the study, but we should be concerned. And what do people need to know? We were actually seeing prescriptions for medical assisted treatment going up prior to the pandemic. Meaning we were actually making progress in getting more people access to care. Then COVID-19 hit and we saw prescriptions level off on a national basis for everyone. But we saw for black and brown communities in particular then went down precipitously and it’s why we need to look at information on a national scale, but we also need to break it down demographically. And in part it accounts for what we saw in 2020 and that was a 30 percent increase in opioid deaths and a 30 to 40 percent increase in deaths for black and brown communities.

Gillis: What needs to be done? In the immediate term and then in the long term…

Adams: What we need to do is continue to collect data and break it down by demographic groups because not all groups are impacted in the same way. Once we collect that data we can target interventions to specific communities and this study shows us that we particularly need to go to communities who have higher rates of poverty, where you have higher rates of black individuals from the data in this study and direct interventions that will allow them to get better access to medication assisted treatment so that we can prevent people from dying from opioid use disorder in continuing record numbers.