How the rise of telemedicine is helping fight the opioid crisis

The pandemic is a challenge for many coping with fear, anxiety, unemployment and isolation.

“This year, there have already been 1,339 suspected overdose deaths which is up 20% from 2019,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli during Monday’s daily press briefing.

According to the Department of Human Services, calls made to New Jersey Mental Health Cares went up nearly 88% in April compared to the same time last year. Calls to NJ Hope Line went up a little more than 14%.

Dr. Kevin Armington is a primary care physician at Workit Health, an online platform that treats opioid addiction.

“One of the things that we really need to do in treatment is to help them come out of that isolation and make connections to their medical providers and other people who have the same illness,” he said.

Dr. Aran Ron with Kaden Health says the one positive impact of COVID-19 is that he can now prescribe medication-assisted treatment virtually. It gives people with an opioid addiction medications like buprenorphine faster in order to stop the craving.

“It used to be a requirement that you actually had to go to a physician in order to get the medication in a first visit. That regulation has now been relaxed and is no longer a requirement. So we view that as a very big plus because people now can get their medication virtually,” Ron said.

According to Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, only one-quarter of addiction treatment providers in the state do prescribe buprenorphine.

“By relaxing some of the telehealth rules, and increasing the reimbursement and allowing reimbursement for different types of services, we now enable more people to get that treatment. And my hope is that those changes stay even after COVID,” Ron said.

Still, New Jersey Prevention Network CEO and Executive Director Diane Litterer says the lockdown created new barriers for those without access to access to computers or the internet to attend meetings.

“That human connection with people is really important, so I don’t think the benefits would be 100% telehealth. I think it needs to be a balance,” Litterer said.

“Visions” director Bob says when he was in early recovery just a simple hug or pat on the back helped him on his journey. He wrote the play in 1991 about alcohol and drug addiction. The show is now in virtual rehearsals.

“Many of the cast, as we communicated through phone while this pandemic is still going on, said it was like a recovery meeting to them. They needed it and they looked forward to it,” he said.

Bob now understands the benefits of virtual therapy, but is longing for when his cast and crew can get together in person for some real face time.