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Muskie researcher co-authors national study on treatment for opioid use disorder published in JAMA

A photo of USM researcher Kate Ahrens

For a year and a half, Kate Ahrens, Assistant Research Professor at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, combed through Maine’s Medicaid data looking for people with opioid use disorder. Did they get treatment? If so, what kind of treatment? 

Was race a factor in the treatment they received?

She wasn’t alone. Researchers in 10 other states were combing through their own Medicaid data to find those answers in what would become the largest analysis of opioid use disorder ever done among Medicaid enrollees.

The results were published this week in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Medicaid is 50-plus different programs and the data can't be combined easily,” said Ahrens, pictured above. “For the first time, this network has been able to pool a number of states’ data.”

This project was led by the Medicaid Outcomes Distributed Research Network and was part of a cooperative agreement with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Ahrens became the co-investigator for Maine in 2019. 

Researchers looked at data for 11 states from 2014 to 2018. Ahrens’ biggest challenge: organizing the MaineCare data into the research network's common model so everyone could run the same analysis on the different states’ data.

“I had a lot of help from my collaborator here at USM, Cathy McGuire, who has worked with the MaineCare data for more than 20 years, and David Jorgenson, Director of Data Analytics at the Office of MaineCare Services,” Ahrens said.

The researchers found that more Medicaid enrollees with opioid use disorder are getting medication treatment, such as buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone. However, that treatment varied by race — Medicaid enrollees who are Black were much less likely to be treated with medications. They also found that pregnant women were more likely to be treated with medications.

The study also found that states varied widely in their use of behavioral health counseling, urine drug testing, and the prescribing of controlled substances.

Researchers showed their state-specific findings to state Medicaid officials, allowing them to see how their state was doing in relation to other states and consider policy decisions.

“I hope policymakers and clinicians use research findings to improve population health,” Ahrens said. “I also hope that the distributed research network can add more states to the network and examine a variety of health outcomes and healthcare use among Medicaid enrollees — there are so many potential uses of this network to improve healthcare and population health. We are just getting started.”

Ahrens recently received a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study maternal health in Maine women.

Read the Maine Public story on Ahrens' research ("Study: More Medicaid Enrollees Receiving Medication For Opioid Use Disorder, But Disparities Exist") and watch WMTW-TV 8's story, "Study finds increase in medication use to treat opioid use disorder."