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There's a new tool in the fight against the nation's opioid epidemic. It's an implant that releases a drug to help treat addiction. But a day after getting FDA approval, the debate goes on about how effective it will be and whether insurance companies will cover it. From member station WBUR, Martha Bebinger reports.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Labels for the implants are rolling off printing machines today. Trainings begin tomorrow for doctors who want to learn to insert the four matchstick-sized rods containing the drug buprenorphine that staves off opioid cravings. Braeburn Pharmaceuticals CEO Behshad Sheldon says she expects the implant will be available for patients within a month.
BEHSHAD SHELDON: This is just the starting point for us to continue to fight for the cause of patients with opioid addiction.
BEBINGER: The implant is called Probuphine. The head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls it a game-changer because it will help addictions patients stay on their meds while their brain circuits recover from the ravages of drug use. And patients prescribed the implant would be much less likely than patients taking pills to sell their medication on the street.
SARAH WAKEMAN: I think it's fantastic news.
BEBINGER: Dr. Sarah Wakeman is medical director of the Substance Use Disorder initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital.
WAKEMAN: I think we need as many possible tools in the toolbox to deal with the opioid epidemic and to provide evidence-based treatment to individuals with opioid use disorder.
BEBINGER: But Wakeman is concerned that the implants only comes in one dose. Patients who need more of the medication that the implant delivers will need an additional daily pill. That's an issue, as well, for Dr. Indra Cidami, who treats addiction patients in New Jersey. She may not offer the six-month implant because she's worried patients will assume it's enough, that they don't need the checkups or counseling that are part of most recovery programs.
INDRA CIDAMI: Probuphine is set up for failure in that way because the patient will be seen after six months. In the meantime, they're not going to be following up with therapy, and that means it's not medication-assisted. It is medication maintenance only.
BEBINGER: The implant maker and the FDA say they expect patients to be in counseling while prescribed the device. In Massachusetts and, the state's largest health insurer says it will cover the implant, which will cost just under $5,000. But Eric Linzer, with the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, says other insurers aren't sure the implant is worth the price.
ERIC LINZER: Certainly the drug holds great promise for individuals struggling with opiate addiction. However, there's still a lot we don't know about its effectiveness.
BEBINGER: The manufacture says it may refund money to insurers if the Probuphine implant doesn't work and offer rebates for patients who have to buy it on their own. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
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