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State eliminates hurdle for medicine to treat opioid dependency

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Nurse Brian Toia holds tabs of buprenorphine
In this July 23, 2018, photo, nurse Brian Toia holds tabs of buprenorphine, a drug which controls heroin and opioid cravings, as he prepares to administer the drug, known also by the brand name Suboxone.
Elise Amendola | AP

A drug that treats opioid dependency may now be easier for some Medicaid patients in the state to get. The state Department of Human Services has announced that it's no longer requiring prescribers to receive approval from the agency before giving some Medicaid patients the medication buprenorphine, which is also known by the brand name Suboxone.

Commissioner Emily Piper said removing that hurdle will allow wider use of the potentially life-saving medication, which reduces opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Piper said the change is aimed at making sure "people can access the treatment they need, when they need it most."

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, commended the agency for looking into and changing the requirement.  

"If it's a life and death matter, let's listen, and at least send people to listen to addiction doctors, who were virtually unanimous in saying, 'This is a barrier,'" Marty said.

The policy change affects patients enrolled in the state's Medicaid fee-for-service program. But the Department of Human Services is also urging health plans that oversee Medicaid patients to drop the requirement. More than 200,000 Minnesotans on Medicaid will be eligible to get the medication without prior authorization under the changed policy, Piper said.

Piper said it's another way state government is trying to prevent more opioid overdose deaths. At least 401 Minnesotans died of opioid overdoses last year. 

The agency also sponsored a training Friday where more than 300 people were taught how to diagnose an overdose and administer the antidote naloxone, which is also known by the brand name Narcan. The training was funded by a more than $10 million grant from the state Legislature to support prevention, treatment and recovery programs across the state.