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ATLANTA — Many rural Georgia counties lack easy access to methadone clinics, according to a new study by a University of Georgia team. 

Methadone is a “gold standard of opioid addiction treatments,” according to study author and UGA health economist Jayani Jayawardhana.  

Methadone helps people quit addictions to drugs like heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl.  

But there’s a logistical challenge: For the first three months of treatment, patients must report daily to a clinic to get methadone. After that, many patients can take the drug at home. 

Even though methadone is effective at helping people with addictions quit other drugs, it also can be addictive and should be closely supervised at first, said Jayawardhana, an associate professor. 

The study found just one of the five Georgia counties with the highest opioid overdose death rates in 2019 had a methadone clinic within a 15-minute drive. 

All told, the state has only 85 methadone clinics, the team found. Those are mostly around cities like Atlanta and Augusta.

Nearly half of Georgia counties — 71 of 159 — lack a methadone clinic within a 15-minute drive.  

“You can’t expect people to drive an hour or two daily for three months,” Jayawardhana said. “That’s not possible for most.”  

The lack of nearby access to methadone clinics could be one reason many people drop out of treatment, she said. Patients may not have transportation and face difficulties getting rides to distant clinics from rural areas.  

The study suggests using Georgia’s 116 federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) to help Georgians access methadone treatment.  

“If these centers can deliver methadone, you could increase access with minimal cost and training and without having to build new facilities, hire personnel, or buy major equipment,” Jayawardhana said.  

Georgia’s rate of overdose deaths increased by about 37.4% from 2019 to 2020, according to the latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.  

This is in line with national trends that saw overdose rates soar during the COVID pandemic as fentanyl – an especially dangerous opioid – flooded American streets.  

Georgians seeking help with substance use can call the Georgia Crisis & Access Line at 1-800-715-4225 for help.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation