People of Color Are Being Left Behind in Opioid Addiction Treatment at an Alarming Rate

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Despite the perception that opioid addiction is a white person’s issue, recent data drives home the point that the opioid epidemic affects Americans of all colors — and that people of color are being left behind in the greater fight against opioids. A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that white Americans are up to 35 times more likely than their black and Hispanic counterparts to receive buprenorphine, an effective prescription treatment that has been proven to reduce the risk of fatal overdose by helping patients manage their opioid cravings.

An unrelated CDC report found that whites experienced a nearly two-fold increase in fentanyl-related fatal overdoses between 2011 and 2016, while blacks and Latinos saw even larger increases in the same time period. These numbers match the surge in total opioid overdose deaths cited by the latest JAMA study, suggesting that opioids are affecting these racial groups equally. Prescriptions for buprenorphine also rose to match these overdose deaths, which at first glance might lead you to believe that health care providers are responding in real-time to the opioid epidemic.

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The data, though, reveals a vast disparity in addiction medicine: patients of color did not receive the benefit of this increase in prescriptions. In other words, these additional prescriptions were only going to white patients. The authors pointed to the systemic factors that lead to this failure to address opioid addiction in communities of color. For one thing, there is currently a greater demand of buprenorphine than there is a supply, as the drug is limited in access by current medical legislation requiring special training by prescription providers.

A director of an opioid policy research program explained to NPR that this has created a health care market that is favorable to trained doctors and nurse practitioners that are hoping to maximize their profit. “[That’s] what we’re seeing here and that’s the reason why individuals with more resources — who are more likely to be white — are more likely to access treatment with buprenorphine.” Only about a quarter of the treatments were paid for by Medicaid or Medicare, suggesting that low-income patients are getting passed over by more lucrative patients who can pay in cash or through private insurance.

There’s also the idea that opioids are hitting white communities harder than black or Latino ones, a perception that is rooted in the stubborn racist idea surrounding opioids that people of color are criminals acting badly while white addicts are victims of the pharmaceutical industry or of isolation. This may in part lead to greater outreach efforts to address opioid addiction in white communities, whereas black and Latino communities are overlooked or are not prioritized by local or regional health officials.

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