Improving methadone access for rural communities in the USA: lessons learned from COVID-19 adaptations and international models of care


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Jamey J Lister1
PhD, Assistant Professor *

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Holly H Lister2
PhD, Clinical Psychologist


1 School of Social Work, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 120 Albany Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, USA

2 Behavioral Research and Training Institute, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, 151 Centennial Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA

ACCEPTED: 16 September 2021

early abstract:

Context: The COVID-19 pandemic led to several changes to methadone treatment protocols at federal opioid treatment programs in the USA.
Issue: Protocol changes were designed to reduce transmission of COVID-19 while allowing for continuity of care, but those changes also demonstrated that many policies surrounding opioid use disorder (OUD) care in the USA cause unnecessary burdens to patients. In this commentary, we describe how current policies create and maintain fatal barriers to methadone treatment for people in rural communities who have OUD, and highlight how COVID-19 adaptations and more flexible methadone models in other countries can better allow for effective and accessible care. We discuss reasons and ways to address these issues to create lasting solutions for rural communities.
Lessons Learned & Recommendations: We focus on three lessons (methadone dispensing and take-home schedules during COVID-19; telehealth services during COVID-19; international models in use prior to COVID-19) and outline recommendations for each lesson to improve access to methadone treatment long-term for rural communities in the USA.
Conclusions: There is an urgent need to identify rural-specific strategies to expand access to methadone treatment in the USA. Lessons learned from both COVID-19 adaptations and international models of care provide a roadmap that can improve rural access to methadone. To achieve lasting change beyond our practice recommendations, there is a need for advocacy efforts that give voice to rural residents impacted by inequitable access to methadone treatment, and rural-tailored education and training initiatives that promote the evidence base for methadone and combat addiction stigma.