Not Enough Doctors Are Treating Heroin Addiction With A Life-Saving Drug

Opioid Abuse Rates Outpace Treatment Capacity 2 to 1

By Shane Shifflett, Hilary Fung, Nicky Forster and Jason Cherkis

DEC. 30, 6:30 PM EDT

Since 2000, fatal overdose rates involving heroin and prescription painkillers have increased by 200 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2013 to 2014 alone, the rates jumped by 14 percent.

One way to explain the stubbornness of the epidemic is to look at the availability of the maintenance medication buprenorphine, sold most commonly under the brand name Suboxone. Taking the medication (or methadone), along with counseling, is an opioid addict’s best chance for recovery, public health experts say. But in the U.S., doctors cannot treat more than 100 buprenorphine patients at a time.

Nearly half of all 3,100 counties in America have no doctors certified to prescribe buprenorphine by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a Huffington Post analysis. Hundreds of counties have very few certified doctors. In places like South Dakota, which has just 27 bupe-certified physicians, some people drive hundreds of miles outside the state to fill prescriptions.

Buprenorphine Treatment Capacity By County

As of December 2015

Map legend, population and patient capacity
Sources: Drug Enforcement Administration, Census Bureau

Many counties in the Northeast have moderate to high numbers of doctors certified to treat buprenorphine patients. But just 31 percent of the 7,745 doctors in those areas are certified to treat the legal limit of 100 patients. Even in Vermont, where the governor in 2014 signed several bills adding $6.8 million in additional funding for medication-assisted treatment programs, only 28 percent or just 60 doctors are certified at the 100-patient level.

As of 2012, the most recent year for which federal data were available, just 13 states had enough doctors certified to prescribe buprenorphine to their addicted residents, according to a study published in August in the American Journal of Public Health.

Below, see how many patients can potentially be prescribed buprenorphine by certified doctors in each state, compared to the number of people suffering from opiate-related addictions.

Sources: Drug Enforcement Administration, American Journal of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention