AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A drug that helps patients stop using opioids and avoid a fatal overdose was prescribed almost exclusively to white Americans. That's according to a study out today from the University of Michigan.
Martha Bebinger with member station WBUR explains that this is the first hard data showing that there's a racial gap when it comes to treating opioid use disorder.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Between 2012 and 2015, overdose deaths surged in many states, and so did the number of visits during which a doctor or nurse practitioner would prescribe buprenorphine, brand name Suboxone.
Study author Dr. Pooja Lagisetty says they looked at more than 13 million of those medical visits but found no increase in prescriptions written for blacks.
POOJA LAGISETTY: White populations are almost 35 times as likely to have a buprenorphine-related visit than black Americans.
BEBINGER: That was happening even though overdose deaths were rising faster for blacks during this period than for whites.
LAGISETTY: This epidemic over the last few years has been framed as largely a white epidemic. But I - you know, we know now that that's not true.
BEBINGER: What is true, says Lagisetty, is that 75% of the white patients either paid cash for the buprenorphine visit or used private insurance. That doesn't explain the gap entirely, but Dr. Andrew Kolodny at Brandeis University says it's a big factor because only 5% of doctors have taken the eight-hour training needed to prescribe the drug.
ANDREW KOLODNY: The few that are doing it are able to really name their price. And that's the reason why individuals with more resources, who are more likely to be white, are more likely to access treatment with buprenorphine.
BEBINGER: Dr. Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse, calls the study findings surprising and disappointing.
NORA VOLKOW: We need to launch into understanding why. What is responsible for these disparities? Because once we understand what is responsible, then we can tackle them.
BEBINGER: The authors of the study say health officials in each state need to look closely at how much Medicaid pays doctors to treat patients who are addicted. Higher reimbursement could ensure that doctors in high-overdose areas prescribe buprenorphine and would encourage all prescribers to take insurance and not just cash.
For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
CHANG: This story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR, WBUR and Kaiser Health News.
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