On Wednesday, August 22, the Drug Czar came to town.
Mr. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy) gave the keynote speech at the Project Lazarus Symposium held in Wilkesboro, NC.
Being a drug czar isn’t as much fun as it sounds like it might be. It means Mr. Kerlikowske works hard helping to create the drug control strategy for the nation. His agency advises the president regarding drug-control issues, and sets the tone for the nation’s approach to drug addiction and treatment. For more information see my blog of April 20th, 2011. At the Project Lazarus Symposium in Wilkesboro, Mr. Kerlikowske gave the keynote speech and elaborated on these topics.
The Drug Czar came to Wilkesboro because of the impressive program Project Lazarus. Project Lazarus is a grass-root, non-profit organization established in 2008 in response to the very high rates of opioid overdose deaths in Wilkes County. That county had one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the entire nation, but over the last four years, those rates have dropped dramatically. For more data about these rates and about Project Lazarus, go to their website at: http://projectlazarus.org
The ONDCP has placed more emphasis on prevention and treatment, acknowledging that law enforcement efforts alone won’t fix our nations’ problems. During his keynote address, Mr. Kerlikowske praised Project Lazarus and said it should be used as a model for communities in other states facing the same problem of overdose deaths.
Project Lazarus’ founder and CEO, Fred Brason, gave an overview of the components of the program and most recent data. Then Mr. Kerlikowske spoke for about twenty minutes, explaining the ONDCP’s vision for drug control policy. Then came a roundtable discussion where parties from various agencies and organizations explained their role with the project.
I was invited to the roundtable because I am the medical director at Mountain Health Solutions, an opioid treatment program in North Wilkesboro that prescribes both buprenorphine and methadone to treat patients with opioid addiction. This OTP is now owned by CRC Health, but was started by Dr. Elizabeth Stanton nearly three years ago, in response to the need for medication- assisted treatment in Wilkes County. At first, her program prescribed only buprenorphine, but later she saw the need for methadone for those patients for whom buprenorphine didn’t work.
I started working there relatively recently. I’ve been amazed at the number of patients presenting for treatment for pain pill addiction, nearly all of whom live in this relatively small community. At present we have more than three hundred and fifty patients enrolled in treatment.
As part of Project Lazarus, all of our patients receive a prescription for (free) naloxone kit to prevent opioid overdose deaths. I was invited to the Project Lazarus Symposium because in my blog on March 28th, 2012, I described how a patient of our OTP clinic saved a relative’s life by using one of the kits.
At the roundtable, I said a few words about the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment using buprenorphine and methadone, and then made a few comments about the overdose death that was prevented with the naloxone kit.
Next, during the roundtable discussion, representatives from many different organizations and locations across North Carolina described the role Project Lazarus plays in their missions. Representatives from such disparate populations as the Cherokee Nation and the military at Ft. Bragg described how they used Project Lazarus’ programs to keep patients safer. Several epidemiologists gave information about the lowered overdose death rates in Wilkes County. A local doctor explained how doctors have revised their prescribing of opioids in the Emergency Department. We also heard from several people connected with the Harm Reduction Coalition, and from the county’s sheriff.
Representatives from state organizations such as the Governor’s Institute on Substance Abuse, the North Carolina Medical Board, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, and the NC Division of Public Health, Injury and Prevention all explained how they worked with Project Lazarus. For example, a portion of Project Lazarus’ activity has been to encourage physicians to sign up for – and use – our states’ prescription monitoring program.
We heard about the Chronic Pain Initiative, a program developed with the help of Project Lazarus, which helps educate physicians about the best practices of opioid prescribing. Initially meant for Medicaid patients, the Chronic Pain Initiative is now available to help all patients.
This initiative helps reduce overdose deaths by providing physicians with, among other things, a toolkit for healthcare providers. It gives them everything from evidence-based information about safe opioid prescribing to a form that can be filled out to gain access to the NC CSRS. It contains worksheets, flow sheets, and addiction screening tools. It contains everything a doctor could want to keep patients on opioids as safe as is possible, while still making opioids available for patients who need them.
I’ve blogged about this program in the past. I knew there was more to Project Lazarus than distribution of naloxone rescue kits, but I didn’t know the full extent of the Projects activities in the state. At Wednesday’s program, I was impressed as professionals from organizations across the state explained how Project Lazarus helps them prevent, intervene, and treat opioid addiction, and reduce overdose deaths.
I was inspired with the depth of knowledge and commitment of all of these people, and by their collaborative spirit. People in all strata of the community cared enough about overdose deaths that they were trying to fix the problem before more lives are lost. These groups were cooperating, which is essential. Both Gil Kerlikowske and Fred Brason took pains to emphasize the importance of working together and not against each other.
In other words, naloxone kits aren’t enough to fix the epidemic of opioid overdose drug deaths. Law enforcement can’t arrest our way out of this problem. Prescription monitoring programs aren’t enough to stop all drug diversion. It takes the sustained efforts of people different segments of the community, working together, to get results. No one intervention is enough. That was the bottom line message I got from the Project Lazarus Symposium and the Drug Czar.