On Oct 3, 2018, the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act (the SUPPORT Act) passed the legislative process and headed to President Trump’s desk for approval. This sweeping package of bills addressing the opioid crisis gained bipartisan support in Congress.
The SUPPORT Act fast-tracked its way through the House and Senate. On June 22, 2018, the House passed a sweeping anti-opioid abuse bill 396-14. And on September 17, the Senate passed its own version of the SUPPORT Act. By October 3, both houses of Congress had passed the final version of the bill. On October 24, President Trump signed the bill.
Congress passed the SUPPORT Act in response to the widespread opioid epidemic in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 115 people in the U.S. die from an opioid overdose every day.
Studies show that about 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain overdose. Studies also established the correlation between opioid overdose and heroin addiction—about 80 percent of people who use heroin start by misusing prescription opioids. The data on how opioid overdoses have risen over the past two years is striking: The number of overdoses grew 30 percent from July 2016 to September 2017. In the Midwest specifically, the number of opioid overdoses increased 70 percent during that timeframe.
The SUPPORT Act permits and encourages telemedicine programs aimed at combating opioid addition by expanding Medicare coverage to cover telehealth services for substance use disorders. Telemedicine and telehealth sound similar but are different concepts. Telemedicine involves “the use of electronic communications and software to provide clinical services to patients without an in-person visit.” Compared to telemedicine, telehealth refers to a broader range of medical services, including non-clinical services such as continuing medical training, administrative meetings and provider training. To practice telemedicine, a doctor’s office would need a computer or mobile device, an integrated or external microphone and an integrated or external camera. Secured telehealth software to keep the patients’ information safe is also needed. By allowing physicians to offer medical diagnosis remotely, patients in rural areas would have a better access to opioid treatment in a timely manner. And by intervening early, the doctors may perform timely medical treatments and reduce the risk of an opioid overdose. Moreover, telemedicine saves the time and money for people to travel to a doctor’s office, which will benefit low-income families.
Other than providing remote medical diagnosis and treatment, the SUPPORT Act also authorizes HHS to develop grants to support people who are in opioid recovery by helping them transition to independent living and employment, and by developing a pilot program to provide temporary housing. The SUPPORT Act attacks the opioid crisis from four angles—(1) fighting the distribution of fentanyl; (2) providing support in treatment and recovery; (3) preventing overdoses; and (4) protecting communities broadly. With four different avenues to address the opioid crisis, the collaborative bipartisan effort probably would change the legislation landscape on opioids. We probably will expect a more robust legislative control on opioid usage in the future.*
*Lin Sun is an associate editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.