The FDA Is Taking Steps To Combat Opioid Addiction, Plans Expanded Access To Medication-Assisted Therapy

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New Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has vowed to expand access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addicts. He also announced that the FDA will issue two new guidances to combat America’s opioid crisis.  ( John Moore | Getty Images )

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced crucial plans in an attempt to better combat the opioid epidemic. It wants to expand the scope of medication-assisted treatment — MAT — with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alexa Azar arguing that MAT is effective.

MAT is a combination of therapy and prescription drugs that work to reduce an addict's craving and withdrawal symptoms. The MAT approach is believed to be more effective than "detox" methods, where addicts are stripped away of their drugs altogether.

The Stigma Against MAT

MAT is often called the gold standard of opioid addiction care, but a nationwide stigma prohibits society from trusting that it can help addict get their lives back together.

"The evidence on [the efficacy of MAT] is voluminous and ever growing," said Azar, citing data that illustrates America's dismissal of MAT: only a third of addiction treatment centers offer it. He went further as to say treating addicts without MAT is akin to "treating an infection without antibiotics." He vowed to increase access to MAT.

"We want to raise that number — in fact, it will be nigh impossible to turn the tide on this epidemic without doing so."

In practice, MAT uses behavioral therapy and medications the likes of buprenorphine or methadone that aim to reduce an addict's opioid cravings. Azar's faith in the method is a stark contrast to those of his predecessor Tom Price, who suggested that substituting one opioid for another doesn't yield much progress.

Part of the FDA's effort involves issuing two new guidance documents. The first will buoy the development of new and longer-acting formulations of current therapies. Drugmakers will be privy to these guidance documents to help improve their patients' access to MAT and, more importantly, change the current narrative suggesting that in order for a person to be effectively cured via MAT, they must practice total abstinence.

As of now, the FDA allows buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone for MAT. But as part of the other guidance document, drugmakers will be allowed to submit other drugs provided they yield effective results — subject to FDA's approval, of course.

America's Opioid Epidemic

The United States' current opioid crisis is one of the most relentless drug situations in the history of the country. An estimated 64,000 people were killed by opioid-related overdoses in 2016, including heroin and painkillers.

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