U.S. Senators want methadone off Medicaid's preferred drug lists

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U.S. Senator Patty Murray and seven other U.S. senators have written a letter to Medicare and Medicaid administrator Andrew Slavic voicing their concerns about the over-prescription of the opioid painkiller methadone.

The trouble with methadone began when its relative affordability led it to be listed as a preferred pain management medication on formulary lists for programs like Medicaid. The thing is, methadone is a problematic way to manage pain outside of cancer patients. It has an extremely long half life, making it a great way to manage opiate addiction. The long half life also makes methadone easy to overdose on when it is prescribed to manage pain. Pain patients on methadone have been overdosing accidentally with frequency for over a decade; the FDA issued a public health advisory in 2006 warning of the dangers. In 2013, lawmakers say, 16,000 people died after overdosing on prescription pain meds; approximately 30 percent of those deaths involved methadone.

If this has been a problem for so long, why are lawmakers just now writing this letter? Sen. Murray's press secretary Kerry Arndt says they are hoping to build on the momentum gained as states have taken action to remove methadone from preferred drug lists. North Carolina was the first to do so in 2013 and since then many more have followed. In Washington, where we tail only Maine and Utah in methadone deaths according to an article by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Washington State Healthcare Authority decided to leave methadone on the preferred drug list and educate prescribers about the dangers. 

"This has affected a lot of families in Senator Murray's state," says Arndt. "It’s really about Sen. Murray being the top Democrat on the Senate health committee, but it’s also tied back to Washington having the third highest rate of deaths in the country for a period of time."