The Institute for Behavioral Health at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management created the Brandeis Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, with principal investigator Cindy Parks Thomas. BORC is a resource for information about opioid use disorder and the opioid epidemic in the United States.

In addition to the creation of BORC, a research team at the University received a four-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to study opioid addiction treatment, specifically the kinds of opioid treatment offered through Medicaid health plans. The research team is led by Prof. Maureen Stewart (Heller). In a Sept. 21 interview with the Justice, she explained that there is a stigma associated with opioid addiction — many people still tend to view addiction as a “bad choice.” Stewart said she is actively working to communicate that addiction is a disease that can be treated and to ensure that health care systems offer effective treatments. 

Stewart's background is in health economics, and although she said she has always been interested in health policy, once she began working in behavioral health she realized that there is room to make a difference in the accessibility of mental health and substance use treatment. 

She explained the significance of this study, saying, “Although we have effective treatments, they are not as available as they should be.” Stewart’s study will examine Medicaid health plans across different states and evaluate how their opioid use treatments can be improved and made more accessible to people on Medicaid health plans. 

According to its website, BORC is a resource for information about opioid use disorder and the opioid epidemic in the United States. The resource is designed for state and federal agencies, healthcare systems, policymakers, researchers and private organizations. BORC focuses on four areas: research, guidance and recommendations, connecting people, and communicating activities and accomplishments, per the website. In a July 8 statement, researcher Hillary Richards explained that the BORC website is a new resource for stakeholders in this policy work. She explained that the program models available on the website “include safer opioid prescribing, increasing availability of medications for opioid use disorder, overdose prevention, post-overdose response, recovery and social determinants such as housing and employment.” 

The website also organizes emerging news and research relating to the opioid crisis, both at Brandeis and more broadly. One of the current projects, INROADS — Intersecting Research on Opioid Misuse, Addiction, and Disability Services — is a partnership between Brandeis researchers and the state governments of Massachusetts and Washington. The aim of this project is to “contribute to evidence-based policy and practice on behalf of people living with disabilities and opioid use disorder.” BORC also outlines the intended audience and receivers of the information on the website, as well as a way to contact the researchers if needed.

The United States has dealt with an opioid epidemic since the late 1990s. From 1999-2018, the opioid epidemic has caused almost 450,000 deaths. In the 1990s, prescriptions to opioid pain relievers increased, and while pharmaceutical companies claimed they would not be addictive, it soon became evident that they were. This led to a misuse in prescription opioids. In 2010, in addition to prescription opioid use, heroin became a leading cause in deaths and in 2013, synthetic opioids — specifically those containing fentanyl — caused another increase in addictions and deaths, according to the CDC

The National Institute on Drug Abuse writes that in 2018, 128 people died each day from opioid overdose. Around 20% of patients that are prescribed opioids misuse them and 10% develop an opioid overuse disorder. 

It is hard to ignore the coronavirus pandemic when discussing any topic nowadays, especially one involving health and medicine. The pandemic has caused the opioid crisis to worsen in a number of ways. Many people in recovery have lost loved ones and have been isolated for extended periods of time. Additionally, those who dealt with substance use before the pandemic cannot attend in-person group meetings and receive support that was available before. Stewart said, however, that there have also been positive consequences, such as improvements in remote telemedicine. Researchers and health professionals are continuing to work on distributing health services through technology in order to make treatment more accessible during the pandemic.

Stewart emphasized the importance of including the accessibility of health care in the University's social justice mission. Regardless of whether a Brandeis student is studying health or not, Stewart said, “understanding diseases and their respective treatment accessibility is important for everyone.”