President Joe Biden signed a multipart end-of-year appropriations bill on Dec. 29 that includes the bipartisan Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment (MAT) Act. The measure included in the omnibus package will make buprenorphine—a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for opioid use disorder (OUD)—more readily accessible to people seeking treatment.
Buprenorphine is proved to reduce overdose deaths, curb illicit drug use, slow infectious disease transmission, and help people stay in treatment. But outdated federal regulations and pervasive stigma around addiction have kept this lifesaving medication from patients in need.
The MAT Act will help remove these barriers to care. Its enactment will:
- Eliminate bureaucratic guardrails that limit buprenorphine prescribing. Under current law, health care professionals must undergo an extensive registration process to obtain a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) waiver to prescribe buprenorphine. The waivers cap the number of patients that providers can treat and subjects them to random DEA audits. As a result, only a limited number of providers are willing and able to prescribe the medication, leaving large swaths of the country without access to it. The MAT Act removes the outdated waiver requirement, making it possible for providers nationwide to prescribe buprenorphine as they would any other medication.
- Help historically underserved communities access OUD treatment. Studies show that rural populations and communities of color have the most difficulty accessing buprenorphine. White, middle-class patients are more likely to receive the medication than Black patients. And data from 2017 shows that buprenorphine was out of reach for nearly 30% of rural residents compared with only about 2% for people living in urban areas. By allowing more health care providers to prescribe buprenorphine, the MAT Act will help break down some of these inequities.
- Reduce stigma surrounding medication to treat addiction. Now that heath care providers can prescribe buprenorphine as they would any other drug, the MAT Act will help normalize the critical role medication plays in treating OUD by directing the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to conduct a national awareness campaign that encourages health care providers to incorporate medication treatment for addiction into their practices.
Passing the MAT Act was long overdue. In 2021 alone, the United States lost more than 100,000 people to drug overdose deaths—with 75% of those fatalities stemming from opioids. It’s well established that medications are the most effective treatment for OUD, yet only 11% of people with the disorder received medication for their condition in 2020. This bipartisan law is an important step forward in helping to close that treatment gap.
Sheri Doyle is a senior manager and Vanessa Baaklini is a senior associate for Pew’s substance use prevention and treatment initiative.