On Tuesday, several dozen organizations that work on addiction and other health issues asked Mr. Biden’s health and human services secretary, Xavier Becerra, to “act with urgency” and eliminate the rule that doctors go through a day of training before getting federal permission to prescribe buprenorphine. Many addiction experts are also calling for abolishing rules that had already been relaxed during the pandemic so that patients don’t have to come to clinics or doctors’ offices for addiction medications.
Although many programs offering treatment, naloxone and other services for drug users have reopened at least partly as the pandemic has dragged on, many others remain closed or severely curtailed, particularly if they operated on a shoestring budget to begin with.
Sara Glick, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington, said a survey of about 30 syringe exchange programs that she conducted last spring found that many closed temporarily early in the pandemic. After reopening, she said, many programs cut back services or the number of people they could help.
“With health departments spending so much on Covid, some programs have really had to cut their budgets,” she said. “That can mean seeing fewer participants, or pausing their H.I.V. and hepatitis C testing.”
At the same time, increases in H.I.V. cases have been reported in several areas of the country with heavy injection drug use, including two cities in West Virginia, Charleston and Huntington, and Boston. West Virginia’s legislature passed a law last week placing new restrictions on syringe exchange programs, which advocates of the programs said would force many to close.
Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.5 billion for the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, as well as $30 million in funding for local services that benefit people with addiction, including syringe exchange programs. The latter is significant because while federal funds still largely cannot be spent on syringes for people who use drugs, the restriction does not apply to money from the stimulus package, according to the Office of Drug Control Policy. Last week, the administration announced that federal funding could now be used to buy rapid fentanyl test strips, which can be used to check whether drugs have been mixed or cut with fentanyl.
Fentanyl or its analogues have increasingly been detected in counterfeit pills being sold illegally as prescription opioids or benzodiazepines — sedatives like Xanax that are used as anti-anxiety medications — and particularly in meth.
Northeastern states that had been hit hardest by opioid deaths in recent years saw some of the smallest increases in deaths in the first half of the pandemic year, with the exception of Maine. The hardest-hit states included West Virginia and Kentucky, which have long ranked at the top in overdose deaths, but also western states like California and Arizona and southern ones like Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee.