ACLU Sues to Allow MAT During Incarceration

 

 

 

I was sent a link to this article that made my day:

https://bangordailynews.com/2018/07/26/mainefocus/aclu-lawsuit-demands-maine-man-get-addiction-treatment-in-jail/

This article reports that the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has taken the case of a man in recovery on medication-assisted treatment who must serve a nine-month jail sentence starting in September in Maine. This man, Zachary Smith, has been in recovery on a buprenorphine product for the past five years. Ordinarily, the jail has a policy of NOT continuing medication-assisted treatment to inmates, leading to forced withdrawal from these medications.

Opioid withdrawal doesn’t (usually) kill healthy adults but can be fatal to people in fragile health. Acute withdrawal does cause significant suffering, and it leaves the person at increased risk of death from overdose upon release from incarceration.

The ACLU says there are two reasons why denying this medical care is against the law. First, denying medical treatment to inmates violates our 8th amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. Second, the Americans With Disabilities Act recognizes opioid use disorder as an illness covered by that Act. This means denying appropriate medical treatment for this condition is discrimination.

The ACLU filed a preliminary injunction to speed up a hearing of the case prior to the beginning of the jail sentence. This means the case will be heard – hopefully – before Mr. Smith must show up for his sentence in early September.

I was so happy to see this case. I think it could be a watershed moment for this nation, one way or the other. I have never understood how it could be legal for a person to be denied medical care while incarcerated, yet it happens across this country every day. In most jails, patients in treatment for opioid use disorder with medication-assisted treatment are denied their medication.

I’ve blogged about this before. I’ve even called the NC chapter of the ACLU myself, many years ago, to ask for help, but was told I had no standing, and that it needed to be the patient to contact the ACLU for help. But my patients sentenced to jail are often reluctant to bring an action against their local jail, feeling they might receive retribution of some sort – a very realistic concern, at least in my area.

Can you imagine the uproar if any other group of patients with chronic illness were denied medical treatment? What if patients with heart disease were denied life-sustaining medications during incarceration? What if diabetics were denied their insulin? For all I know, this may be happening. If it is, citizens of this country should not stand for this. We shouldn’t stand for it for people with substance use disorders, either.

Since all of this is happening in Maine, I was curious if North Carolina has any similar cases pending. I went to the website of the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU and found nothing advocating for inmates to be continued on medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.

However, I did find that our state chapter of the ACLU filed a federal class action lawsuit against North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety’s policy of denying treatment for Hepatitis C to incarcerated people with the virus. The current class action suit was filed on behalf of all people incarcerated in NC with Hepatitis C.

https://www.acluofnorthcarolina.org/en/press-releases/aclu-incarcerated-people-sue-nc-failure-provide-life-saving-treatment

Current expert recommendations are that all incarcerated people receive Hep C testing, since according to data from the Center for Disease Control, around one-third of all prisoners are infected with Hepatitis C.

In the past, recommendations were to wait until the person with the Hep C virus developed liver damage before treating. Those expert recommendations have changed. The current recommendation is that all people with active Hep C infection should be treated. Experts now also recommend treatment even if the patient has not stopped illicit drug use.

The NC Department of Public Safety’s present policy is that incarcerated people with Hep C infection that’s caught early, when at its most treatable, are forbidden to receive treatment while incarcerated.

This article says there’s no law for universal testing of prisoners for Hep C, and the decision to test is left up to personnel at each jail site.

Both issues are important, though to me, continuing access to medication-assisted treatment appears more pressing, and could prevent more deaths in the short term.

I will follow these cases, and give updates to my readers.

 

 

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Benzodiazepines: The Next Wave?

 

 

 

In the February 22, 2018 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lembke and others wrote a perspective article about benzodiazepines, titled, “Our Other Prescription Drug Problem.”

The authors voiced concerns that amidst all the attention being given to opioid use disorders and opioid overdose deaths, we are ignoring the harms from overprescribed benzodiazepines. They felt it would be a tragedy if the present attention to opioid overuse and misuse led to more people being prescribed benzodiazepines, leading to a growing problem with this type of medication

While I am firmly in the amen corner on this one, I know physicians in my state have not ignored this problem. Since the South has the highest rate of benzodiazepine prescribing per capita of the U.S., [1] the opioid treatment program physicians frequently talk about how to reduce the overabundance of benzodiazepines, and the dangers they present to our patients.

We’ve seen the adverse events from benzodiazepines for more than ten years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says deaths where benzodiazepines were involved quadrupled from 2002 to 2015. NIDA also says that when benzodiazepines are mixed with opioids, the risk of death increases ten-fold, and that three-fourths of all opioid overdose deaths also involve benzodiazepines. About two years ago, the FDA issued a black box warning about the overdose dangers from combining benzodiazepines with opioids.

As the Lembke article says, the number of people in the U.S. who were prescribed benzodiazepines increased 67% from 1996 to 2013. The quantity prescribed more than tripled over that time, indicating higher dose have been prescribed. In 2012, for every 100 adults in the U.S., 37.6 prescriptions for benzodiazepines were written. That’s an amazing – and scary – statistic.

It’s so bad in my area that Xanax functions as a form of currency. Forget bitcoin; Xanax works just like money. For example, it costs two Xanax 1mg pills to get someone to run you to the grocery store and back, assuming no other stops. That’s the going price. If you want to go to the hardware store too, you’d probably have to throw in another Xanax or clonazepam.

It’s a cultural thing. People feel like after they fill a prescription of Xanax or another benzodiazepine, it’s theirs to use as they wish. They can sell them, barter them, or even take them. People don’t even view this as wrong or illegal.

Most experts feel ordinary benzodiazepines are overused and prescribed for too long. Besides their risk when taken with opioids or other sedating drugs, and they have serious hazards when taken long-term. In a blog entry on September 1, 2014, I described a study published in the British Medical Journal that showed people who used sleeping pills died prematurely at a rate three times higher than controls who did not use sleeping pills, in a dose-related fashion. [2]

Studies show people on benzodiazepines (and other sedatives, like the “z” drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata) were more likely to die from cancer and were more likely to have falls. Studies show an increased risk of dementia in patients who take these medications, though we can’t say for sure that it’s causal.

To make matters worse, analogues forms of some benzodiazepines are being made overseas in clandestine drug labs. Some are extremely potent. For example, an analogue of clonazepam is so potent that it needs to be dosed in micrograms rather than milligrams and can be bought online. We don’t know the magnitude of harm that could be caused by such drugs, because they are difficult to detect in urine drug screens.

I cringe when I encounter a patient who says, “I’ve been on my Xanax now for ten years. I can’t do without it.” Prescribing guidelines say these medications were never intended to be used long-term. They can be effective for a period of weeks to months, but daily use over three months isn’t recommended.

Certain providers seem to prescribe them for the flimsiest of reasons. I know this because when I request patient records, I see on a problem list: “Anxiety – continue clonazepam.” There’s no mention of other treatment that have been tried, no notation about any sort of counseling, which is very effective for some anxiety disorders. There’s no specification about the type of anxiety being treated. Sometimes benzodiazepines are used to treat depression, but since benzos are central nervous system depressants, they tend to worse depression. Sometimes benzodiazepines are prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder, even though we know from VA studies that benzodiazepines tend to make PTSD worse. [3]

Other experts feel their positive aspects are overlooked, and that they are effective at relieving short-term anxiety, and at inducing sleep. As the Lembke article points out, benzodiazepines can be helpful when prescribed for less than one month, and when used intermittently. When used daily and for months, those benefits disappear, and the risks of benzodiazepines increase.

We aren’t the only country struggling with the negative effects of benzodiazepines. Other countries have attempted to mitigate the negative effects by putting prescribing guidelines into place for physicians to follow. As you will note, some of these countries have had guidelines in place for decades.

 

Ireland: https://health.gov.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Benzodiazepines-Good-Practice-Guidelines.pdf

Australia: https://www.racgp.org.au/your-practice/guidelines/drugs-of-dependence-b/

United Kingdom: https://www.benzo.org.uk/commit.htm

Canada: https://www.benzo.org.uk/hcb/index.htm

Several countries have adopted the guidelines written by the United Kingdom as their guidelines.

Several states and health organizations have taken on the challenge of writing benzodiazepine prescribing guidelines in the U.S.

Like the authors of the Lembke article, I too hope we see a push to use evidence-based data when prescribing benzodiazepines in the U.S.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6326a2.htm
  2. Weich et al, “Effect of anxiolytic and hypnotic drug prescriptions on mortality hazards: retrospective cohort study,” British Medical Journal, 2014
  3. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/newsletters/research-quarterly/v23n4.pdf

Who Should NOT Be in Medication-Assisted Therapy with Methadone or Buprenorphine?

Liquid methadone

 

 

I spend much time and effort explaining how medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder works for many people. It occurred to me that I should explain who isn’t a good candidate for such treatment.

I enthusiastically support medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder, but no treatment works for everyone. Some patients may be too ill for this form of treatment and some may not be ill enough, and find other treatments that work for them. Here are some reasons a patient may not be suitable for MAT:

The patient doesn’t have opioid use disorder. That seems obvious, but occasionally I encounter an addict who wants to be started on methadone even though he’s not using opioids. Rarely, people using cocaine, benzodiazepines or other drugs will come to the OTP after they have heard how well it worked for other people, who do have opioid use disorder. After I explain that buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone only work for opioids, some of these patients have become angry.

A few weeks ago, a woman came to our opioid treatment program who hadn’t used opioids for nine months, and – by her history – never had an obsession or compulsion to use them in destructive ways. When I explained to her why our treatment wasn’t appropriate for her, she became angry, and said it was her right to get treatment because of the CURES grant.

This made no sense to me, and I tried to explain myself several times, but she left, angry she was being denied a treatment that the government was paying for, because she felt that meant she was entitled to the medication if she wanted it.

The patient takes opioids for pain, but has never developed opioid use disorder.

Such a patient may be physically dependent, but lacks behaviors that indicate loss of control over opioids. The patient denies any misuse of medication, or obsession and compulsion to continue using opioids despite adverse consequences.

Opioid treatment programs (OTPs) have stringent regulations put on them by both federal and state governments. OTPs are designed to treat patients with opioid use disorder; these are patients who have lost the ability to control their intake of opioids, so the OTP regulates a maintenance dose of either methadone or buprenorphine to keep the patient out of withdrawal and able to function normally.

If a patient has only pain and no opioid use disorder, there’s no reason to enroll in an opioid treatment program, because patients without addiction are still able to take opioid medication as prescribed. Pain medication can be prescribed by any doctor with a DEA license.

While opioid treatment programs aren’t set up to treat chronic pain, many of our patients with both opioid use disorder and chronic pain find methadone and buprenorphine helps with pain. That’s a nice benefit. Many of these patients feel less pain once they’re out of the miserable cycle of intoxication and withdrawal. So less pain is a happy side effect of our treatment.

Having said this, there are those unfortunate patients who have been dismissed from pain clinics for reasons other than misuse of opioids. They don’t meet criteria for opioid use disorder, but they are clearly physically dependent on opioids and can’t find timely treatment. I have – at times – admitted these patients, under an exception filed with SAMHSA, with the understanding that they would be better served by eventually transferring to another pain management program.

The patient with opioid use disorder asking for maintenance treatment has been physically dependent for less than one year.

Methadone is difficult to taper off of, and federal and state regulations say it cannot be prescribed for people with opioid use disorder with less than one year of physical dependence. This is a somewhat arbitrary cut off, and the OTP physician can ask for an exception to this regulation if she feels it’s in the best interest of the patient.

Even if the OTP wants to treat the patient with maintenance buprenorphine (Suboxone), which is usually much easier to taper off of than methadone, permission must be sought from state and federal authorities before enrolling a patient who has used opioids less than one year.

This doesn’t apply to office-based buprenorphine practices, who don’t have to follow federal and state regulations for opioid treatment programs. If buprenorphine is prescribed in the office setting, the prescribing physician can use her best judgment about who is appropriate for treatment, without needing government approval.

To further confuse this issue, patients who have been on MAT in the past may be re-admitted onto MAT even without a year of physical dependence, if that patient thinks that relapse back into active opioid use disorder is imminent. Also, pregnant patients with opioid use disorder don’t have to meet the one-year requirement because of the benefits to both mom and baby with MAT.

The person with opioid use disorder can go to a prolonged inpatient residential treatment program.

This is controversial, because some doctors think medication-assisted treatment should be given to everyone because of its success rate compared to abstinence-only treatments.

But who gets the best of medical treatment in our country? Possibly it is medical professionals like doctors and dentists, airline pilots, politicians, and celebrities. They usually get the gold standard of treatment for whatever disease ails them.

If such people have opioid use disorder, they are often treated with inpatient medical detox, using buprenorphine to ease withdrawal, followed immediately with prolonged inpatient residential drug addiction treatment. I know doctors and dentists who spent six to nine months in treatment. After treatment, they must sign monitoring contracts with their licensing boards in able to go back to work. These contracts usually involve a mandated number of group sessions per week and random drug testing. With this kind of support and accountability, these medical professionals have excellent outcomes. Studies show that more than 80% are still off all drugs and alcohol at five years after entering treatment.

If only everyone could get that kind of treatment!

If this kind of treatment is available to the addict…take advantage of it. But most people with opioid use disorder can’t access this kind of treatment, with extensive post-treatment counseling, monitoring, and accountability.

A person with opioid use disorder is also physically addicted to alcohol, benzodiazepines or other sedatives.

These drugs can be deadly when mixed with methadone or buprenorphine. I prefer such patients enter a medical detox unit to get off these sedatives prior to entering treatment in an OTP. However, it’s a complicated problem, and the admitting physician needs to make a judgment about the risks of starting treatment while the patient is physically dependent on sedating medications, compared to the risks of delaying treatment for the opioid use disorder.

The FDA issued a statement in 2017 saying that “the opioid addiction medications buprenorphine and methadone should not be withheld from patients taking benzodiazepines or other drugs that depress the central nervous system…” They issued this statement after releasing the black box warning in 2016, saying opioids combined with benzodiazepines or other sedatives was dangerous and could result in death.

I believe this more recent statement was their way of indicating the risks may be outweighed by the benefits for patients contemplating admission to treatment for opioid use disorders with MAT. After all, patients with active opioid use disorder can die.

The person with opioid use disorder also has acute, severe mental illness. An actively suicidal patient is too sick for an outpatient opioid treatment program. So is an acutely psychotic patient who is having hallucinations and delusions. These patients often can’t to understand what is real and what isn’t. Ideally these patients need inpatient treatment at a facility that will treat both mental illness and opioid use disorder. Sadly, it’s getting ever harder to find such facilities for patients who need them.

Some patients may have neurologic dysfunctions that impair their ability to understand and consent to treatment. Such patients usually have people authorized to make decisions for them, and we must bring that person into the discussion and get consent to treat from them.

If a patient has some sort of temporary condition that impairs their ability to understand and consent to treatment, we may ask them to return on another day. For example, we sometimes have a new patient present for intake who is impaired to the point where consent is impossible. We make sure a responsible party can drive them home, and make plans for them to return the next day.

A patient has behavior that interferes with treatment.

OTPs have an obligation to all their patients to maintain a safe and orderly treatment environment. Patients who start physical fights, threaten staff or other patients, or sell drugs shouldn’t be kept in treatment. I know that sounds harsh, but OTPs have a hard enough time maintaining good standing in their communities without having to face accusations about illegal behavior on premises.

Patients need to be emotionally stable enough to conduct themselves in a non-threatening manner to be able to remain in treatment. Some patients, after being counseled about acceptable behavior, are able to comply with requests for behavioral changes. Some patients have erratic behavior due to mental illness, and shouldn’t be blamed, but their behavior still may be too disruptive for the OTP setting.

The patient has serious co-existing physical health problems.

Actually, I can’t think of any physical health problem that would make the treatment of opioid use disorder with methadone riskier to the patient than untreated opioid use disorder. We know for sure that untreated opioid use disorder produces high risks of death and disability.

Issues like severe lung disease and specific heart rhythm problems do increase the risk of medication-assisted treatment, especially with methadone. I try to contact the patient’s other doctors and consult with them before the patient goes above a low dose of methadone.

Ideally, I’d like to talk to the patient’s other doctors on the day of admission, before methadone is started, but that can’t always be done. With the time pressures doctors are under, it’s getting ever harder to claim some of their time for a patient consultation.

Some of these patients could be started on buprenorphine instead of methadone, which is safer with these health conditions, and has fewer medication interactions.

The patient has transportation difficulties.

Some patients can’t get a ride to their treatment program every day, which interferes with delivery of quality treatment. With buprenorphine, federal requirements for daily dosing were lifted, but states still have varying regulations. With methadone, the patient must come for treatment daily. During the first two weeks of stabilization, it’s important for medical personnel to be able to evaluate the patient every day, to assess the effects of dose increases. Most opioid treatment programs are open seven days a week for dosing.

A patient who enters treatment expecting to be completely drug free in the near future.

I try to make sure patients entering treatment with methadone or buprenorphine understand that I am not switching them from illicit opioids to these medications because tapering off of them is easier. Particularly with methadone, it is not. But both methadone and buprenorphine are so long-acting, they can be dosed once per day, giving the patient a steady level of opioids. This allows the addict to function normally, without withdrawal or impairment, once the dose has stabilized.

Both medications give the person with opioid use disorder time to regain physical and mental health. Once on a stable dose, the recovering person can make changes in his life, with the help of counselors and other OTP workers. He can get back to work, any criminal activity, form better relationships with his family and himself, and recover a better quality of life.

Will that person ever do well off methadone? There’s no way to know. Some patients can taper off methadone, if they bring the dose down slowly enough that they don’t feel intolerable withdrawal. Some, perhaps most, recovering people find they will do better if they stay on methadone.

All this is to say that the goal of entering an opioid treatment program isn’t necessarily to get off the treatment medication.

If a patient seeks to enter methadone treatment but also expresses a desire to be off buprenorphine or methadone within weeks to months, I tell them their expectations aren’t realistic. I try to explain these medications don’t work like that. If the patient wants to get off all medications quickly, I can give referrals to programs that can help them. This way, patients can’t later say they were misled, and feel like they have liquid handcuffs, chained forever to methadone, with its many regulations for treatment.

I hope this gives a little guidance as to which patients are most appropriate for medication-assisted treatment.

 

 

 

 

Harm Reduction and Abstinence-only Approaches to Treatment

 

 

First of all, I know the gif doesn’t have anything to do with this blog post, but I thought it was really cool, and I like langurs. It looks like he’s really enjoying his day.

 

 

 

I’m re-running a blog entry from the past, since I got some interesting comments the first time. Plus, I’m feeling lazy today, so here goes:

 

I’ve heard the harm reduction and abstinence-only debate about addiction treatment many times, not only at addiction medicine conferences, but also in my own head. In the past, I thought abstinence from all addictive drugs was the only true recovery from addiction. As I’ve aged, I’ve traveled far into the harm reduction camp, having seen people with addiction die from their disease when perhaps more could have been done to save them.

A wise mentor of mine once said try not to argue with people who aren’t actually in the room with you, so I’ve committed the debate to writing.

Following is an imaginary debate between two addiction treatment professionals. One professional believes harm reduction measures are worthwhile because they can keep people with substance use disorders alive and healthier, even if they never completely stop using drugs. The other professional feels harm reduction cheats them out of full and happy recovery, which she believes is seen with complete abstinence from all drugs.

First, they chat about needle exchange:

HR: I fully support needle exchange programs. They have been proven to reduce transmission of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis. Why wouldn’t we want to help people avoid getting these potentially devastating diseases?

AO: Because giving out needles sends the wrong message. It says we are OK with people injecting drugs, and that we are willing to make it easier for them to do so. Appearing to condone drug use in any way sends the wrong message to young adults, who may be considering using drugs for the first time. Stigma towards drug users can be harmful, but perhaps stigma serves a good purpose if it discourages people from doing dangerous things like injection drug use.

HR: Studies do not show needle exchange increases the likelihood that people will start using drug intravenously. Easily available clean needles are not enough to convince a person to start injecting drugs. Besides, even if you have little compassion for the drug user, for every case of HIV we prevent with needle exchange, we save our society countless dollars in medical care. That’s just one disease. When you consider the health burden and medical costs of transmission of hepatitis C, it’s even more reasonable.

Even the ultra-conservative Mike Pence, our Vice President, changed his mind on needle exchange after an outbreak of HIV occurred in a rural community among people injecting opioids.

Besides being morally right, needle exchange makes financial sense.

AO: No, it doesn’t. It sends a message to people who inject drugs that we’ve given up on them. It says we don’t think they will ever be able to live without injecting drugs. In a way, it infantilizes them. By making drug use easier, we may cheat them out of a full and more satisfying recovery.

AO and HR move to the topic of medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine:

HR: First of all, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is harm reduction only so far as all treatment should reduce harm. MAT is a good treatment in itself, and isn’t necessarily just a stop on the journey of recovery.

I fully support medication-assisted treatment. We have fifty years of studies that show people with opioid use disorder are less likely to die if they enroll in methadone maintenance or buprenorphine maintenance. It is one of the most heavily evidence-based treatments in all of medicine, and it is endorsed by many professional agencies, such as the Institute for Medicine, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the World Health Organization, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

We have study after study showing that people with opioid use disorder have a better quality of life when on medication-assisted treatment. We have more information about methadone because it has been use in the U.S. much longer than buprenorphine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002, after the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 was passed.

People with opioid use disorder who enter methadone treatment are more likely to become employed, much less likely to commit crime, and more likely to have improved mental and physical health. They receive addiction counseling as part of the process of treatment. We think buprenorphine has the same benefits, though there have been fewer studies than with methadone. We do know the risk of opioid overdose death is much lower when a person with opioid use disorder is treated with buprenorphine, too.

Because medication-assisted treatment is so effective, it should be considered a primary treatment of opioid use disorder, not only a harm reduction strategy.

AO: With MAT, people with opioid use disorder may be harmed more than if they continue in active addiction. It is no different from giving an alcoholic whiskey. Methadone is a heavy opioid that’s difficult to get off of. The opioid treatment programs that administer methadone don’t try to help these people to get off of methadone, because they make more money by keeping them in treatment. These patients are chained to methadone with liquid handcuffs forever. It’s also expensive over the long run, and patients have many restrictions put on them by state and federal governments.

HM: Methadone and buprenorphine treatments are not like giving an alcoholic whiskey, because the unique pharmacology of these medications. Both medications have a long half-life, and when patients are on a stable dose, they feel normal all day long without cravings for illicit opioids. This frees them from the unending search for drugs that occupies much of their days. Instead, they can concentrate on positive life goals. They can live normal lives while taking medication once per day that does not cause impairment or euphoria or sedation.

Also, many people with opioid use disorder still feel some withdrawal symptoms even after acute withdrawal is over. This syndrome, often called post-acute withdrawal syndrome, can cause fatigue, body aches, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It’s unpleasant. Some people may crave opioids intensely. We think this occurs because that person’s body no longer makes the body’s own opioids, called endorphins.

Opioid use disorder is a metabolic disorder. Symptoms abate when the patient is started on appropriate replacement therapy, just like insulin with diabetes.

Methadone and buprenorphine are both very long-acting opioids. Instead of the cycle of euphoria and withdrawal seen with short-acting opioids, these medications occupy opioid receptors for more than twenty-four hours. It can be dosed once per day and at the proper dose, it eliminates craving for opioids, and eliminates the post-acute withdrawal, which is so difficult to tolerate.

And yes, methadone is difficult to taper off of, but most of the time it is in the patient’s best interests to stay on this medication, rather than risk a potentially fatal relapse to active opioid addiction. Some patients are able to taper off of it, if they can do it slowly.

Do you think of a diabetic who needs insulin as being “handcuffed” to it? What about a patient with very high cholesterol? Is she “handcuffed” to Lipitor? Do you think the doctor who continues to prescribe insulin is just trying to make money off that patient? Why is it OK for a doctor to make money from treating other chronic illnesses, but not from substance use disorders?

AO: What about the people with opioid use disorder who are doing well in abstinence-based 12-step recovery, who are healthy and happy off all opioids? Why are these people doing so well, even though their disorder was as bad as patients in opioid treatment programs? And 12-step meetings don’t cost anything.

HR: We don’t have all the answers to this question. One form of treatment, even medication-assisted treatment, won’t be right for every patient. Maybe the support that a 12-step group can provide got these people through the post-acute withdrawal. We don’t have much information about these recovering people, obviously due to the anonymous nature of that program.

If people with opioid use disorder feel OK off all opioids, that’s great. They don’t need medication. But they shouldn’t criticize the other people who clearly do benefit from medication-assisted treatment with methadone, and buprenorphine. Let’s support all options.

Besides, not all people with opioid use disorder want to go to 12-step meetings. Do treatment professionals have the right to insist everyone go to these meetings, even if patients don’t like them?

AO: Medications cheat patients out of full abstinent recovery. Methadone and buprenorphine blunt human emotions, and make it impossible to make the spiritual changes necessary for real recovery. Methadone and buprenorphine are intoxicants, and they prevent people from achieving the spiritual growth needed for full recovery. You keep these people from finding true recovery, and condemn them to a life of cloudy thinking from these medications.

HR: Various people assert patients on maintenance methadone and buprenorphine have blunted emotions and spirituality, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. How can you measure spirituality? If spirituality means becoming re-connected with friends and loved ones and being a working, productive member of society, then studies show that methadone and buprenorphine are more likely to assist patients to make those changes.

Physically, studies show patients on maintenance methadone and buprenorphine have normal reflexes, and normal judgment. They are able to think without problems, due to the tolerance that has built up to opioids. They can drive and operate machinery safely, without limits on their activities. Contrary to popular public opinion, patients on stable methadone doses are able to drive without impairment, assuming their dose is appropriate and no other substances are used that could be impairing.

People with opioid use disorder are far more likely to make significant and healthy life changes if they feel normal, as they do on medications like methadone and buprenorphine. If they chose abstinence, many times they feel a low-grade withdrawal for weeks or months, and this makes going to meetings and meeting life’s responsibilities more difficult.

Far too many people with opioid use disorder have had abstinence-only addiction treatments rammed down their throats. Most of these patients aren’t even told about the option of medication-assisted treatment, which is much more likely to keep an opioid drug user alive than other treatment modalities.

Too often, such patients cycle in and out of detoxification facilities over and over, even though we have forty years of evidence that shows relapse rates of over 90% after a several weeks’ admission to a detox facility. We’ve known this since the 1950’s, and yet we keep recommending this same treatment that has a low chance of working. And then we blame the addict if he relapses, when he was never given a treatment with a decent chance of working!

And a patient just released from a detox facility has a higher risk of dying from an opioid overdose. What other treatment in modern medicine is recommended that has such a poor response rate and an increased risk of death?

Medical professionals, the wealthy, and famous people are often treated with three to six months of inpatient residential treatment, and they have higher success rates. Physicians have about an 80% abstinence rate at five years into recovery, but besides prolonged treatment, they sign intense monitoring contracts (usually five years). They have mandated recovery meetings, random drug screens, and other supports available to them, along with loss of professional licensure if they relapse.

For most people with opioid use disorder, that kind of treatment and support isn’t available. It’s expensive, and many such patients have no insurance, or insurance that will only pay for a few weeks of treatment.

For most people, medication-assisted treatment can be a life-saving godsend. It isn’t right for every patient with opioid use disorder, but we know people are less likely to die when started in medication-assisted treatment. After patients make progress in counseling, there may come a time when it is reasonable to start a slow taper to get off either methadone or buprenorphine – or maybe not. But first we should focus on preventing deaths.

AO: Given the time, money, expense, and stigma against methadone and buprenorphine, it should be saved as a last resort treatment. If an person with opioid use disorder fails to do well after an inpatient residential treatment episode, then MAT could be considered as a second-line treatment. Let’s save such burdensome treatments for the relapse-prone patients.

HR: It seems disingenuous to claim stigma as a reason to avoid MAT when you are the one placing stigma on this treatment.

I could go on for many more pages, so let’s stop here. You get the idea.

In the past, harm reduction and abstinence were considered opposing views. I’ve heard some very smart people say this is a false dichotomy, and that in real life, these views are complementary.

I like this newer viewpoint.

Any form of treatment should reduce harm. If a patient achieves abstinence from drugs, then that’s the ultimate reduction of harm. Also, harm reduction principles can help keep drug users alive, giving them the opportunity to change drug use patterns later in life. Let’s give people more choice and more opportunities to transition out of drug use, if that’s what they desire.

Let’s do a better job of working together.

Stigma and Substance Use Disorders

 

 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about stigma lately.

Recently I was asked to do a short presentation about stigma against people with substance use disorders. I thought I could put something together easily to satisfy the intended audience.

But as I created power point slides with all the usual stuff, I dug a little deeper. I thought about how everyone in my intended audience probably already agrees that stigma is bad. What would I be telling them? Everyone was opposed to stigma, right?

But then I thought, if that is so, then why is there stigma? Or perhaps there’s only stigma in people who don’t have knowledge about the nature of substance use disorders. Perhaps the problem is lack of education, and after hearing facts, people won’t support stigma against those with substance use disorder.

I did internet searches about stigma in general and stigma specific to substance use disorders.

I went down some interesting rabbit holes, as one can easily do on the internet. I came across web pages that reminded me of something I’d read about ten years ago, by a physician, that was pro-stigma. I found it on my bookshelf and re-read it.

It was a peculiar chapter in a book about substance use disorder treatment, titled, “Addiction Treatment: Science and Policy for the Twenty-first Century,” edited by Henningfield et al. Just as I recalled, there was a chapter in that book that stood out from all the others, titled, “In Praise of Stigma,” by Dr. Sally Satel.

I’ll try to summarize her viewpoints without the sarcasm that begs to be included. In that chapter, Dr. Satel says stigma against substance use, and people that use substances, is a good thing because stigma discourages deviant behavior and has a civilizing effect on society. She says it’s a normal and necessary part of society. She views the behavior of people with substance use disorders as irresponsible and says it’s bad policy to “cleanse the addict’s image.”

She feels stigma encourages people to get help for substance use disorders, and that eliminating stigma will not make it more likely for people to get help for substance use disorders.

She says people who relapse back to drug use repeatedly is “…a behavior almost always under one’s control…”

Aha, I thought. That’s the key to understanding her point of view. She believes people with substance use disorders have at least some degree of control over their drug use. However, loss of control over substance use is one of the hallmark criteria for the diagnosis of substance use disorder.

It is confusing. Some people who use substances heavily can stop on their own, if given a good enough reason. Most Addiction Medicine experts don’t feel those people meet criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder. But those are the people Dr. Satel is thinking of, and she fails to make a distinction between those two very different people. Of course, her conclusions are different from most of the rest of the field. She’s talking about apples and the rest of us are talking about oranges.

Her ideas may have some validity for people in the early stages of drug use. Just like the “Just say no” campaign of the 1980’s, early intervention can prevent formation of substance use disorder. But they are of little use when addressing substance use disorder.

To further complicate things, sometimes people with substance use disorders can partially control their substance use, or control it for a short time. Or they may have full control over one drug for a time, but no control over another drug. That’s confusing, and is why friends and family of a person with substance use disorder can become frustrated and puzzled by the behavior of the affected person.

It’s not as confusing when we think about other chronic medical problems. Nearly all have behavioral components, just like substance use disorders, and often we see the same partial/total loss of control over these behavioral aspects.

For example, a diabetic may be able to refrain from eating sweets on most days, but occasionally, perhaps on a stressful day, may eat several servings of sweets. Such a person usually faces less judgment from others, probably because so many of us have tried and failed to control our eating, and commiserate.

But imagine how much harder it is to control use of a substance that produces more intense feelings of pleasure – using substances that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain much more intensely than eating or not exercising.

We can talk about whether stigma is deserved or not, but what about its effects? Does stigma make it more likely that people will enter treatment for substance use disorders? No, according to the limited studies done on this issue.

Studies of stigma towards people with mental illnesses show it results in unemployment, housing problems, impaired social functioning, lowered self-efficacy, and lowered self -esteem. One study (Joy et al., JAMA, 10/18/16) showed that people with mental health diagnoses are less likely to get appropriate medical care when they go to an emergency department for care for health problems.

Pregnant women with substance use disorders face the most intense stigma. They encounter harsh judgment from friends, family, law enforcement, and even medical care providers. The ultimate stigmatization is criminalization, and around half of the U.S. states have laws that say drug use during pregnancy is child abuse.

The trouble is, it’s harder for pregnant women to get treatment for substance use disorders. Pregnant women using drugs make doctors nervous. Either medical providers lack confidence in their ability to treat substance use disorder in women, or they are anxious about their legal responsibilities to report drug use during pregnancy.

Tennessee provides the best example of the harm that laws can do. In 2014, Tennessee passed the Fetal Assault Law, which said drug use during pregnancy was a crime. Over the two years this law was in effect, around thirty women were charged, almost all were poor and/or minority race. Some of the women who were charged had tried, multiple times, to access substance use disorder treatment, but were turned away. Only two of Tennessee’s one-hundred and seventh-seven treatment programs (at that time) provided pre-natal care and allowed children to stay with expecting moms, so there were few places for women to go when they did ask for help.

At the end of the two years, fewer women sought treatment for substance use disorder, and the law was allowed to sunset in July of 2016. Criminalizing drug use during pregnancy did not push women toward treatment, but away from it, out of fear they would face criminal charges if they sought health care during pregnancy.

It is interesting that Tennessee’s law covered illegal drugs, and not nicotine or alcohol. Ironically, we have more data about the harms caused by both legal drugs than about the illegal drugs.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is the number one cause of developmental disabilities and birth defects in the U.S. If the motive for Tennessee’s law was fetal protection, they might have included alcohol. But they didn’t; some drugs have more stigma against them than others, and some drug users have more stigma against them than others.

Thinking about stigma for my small presentation got me thinking about my own tendencies to stigmatize. I wish I could say that I don’t ever look down on other people for who they are or what they do, but that’s not true. I’m better than I used to be, and sometimes have enough insight to know what I’m doing and adjust my thinking, but the tendency towards judgmentalism is still with me.

When I stigmatize, I’m usually feeling fear – fear of people who behave differently than me. Stigmatization gives me the false sense that I’m superior to a certain group, that I’m protected from the judgment that they deserve. Stigmatization can be used to oppress certain people, or suppress a certain point of view. These motivations are not healthy. They damage the people I stigmatize, but they mostly damage me. It turns me into someone I don’t like, and that doesn’t feel good at all.

When I read Toni Morrison’s book “Paradise,” years ago, it helped me see why we stigmatize and scapegoat. That book, for me, vividly illustrated the human tendency to stigmatize and the tremendous damage it does to all concerned.

I wish all of us could resist the tendency to stigmatize, not only against people with substance use disorders, but against all groups. I pray at this difficult time in our history, we will resist the temptation to reject and stigmatize groups with whom we don’t agree. To use a quote from twelve step fellowships: “as long as the ties that bind us together are stronger than those that would tear us apart, all will be well.”

Indeed.

 

Update on Jail Death Lawsuits

 

 

 

 

Long-time readers of my blog will remember the story of Eric Stojcevski, a young man who died from withdrawal from prescribed medication while in jail in Macomb County, Michigan, for unpaid traffic tickets in 2014.

I blogged about this case on November 3, 2017, February 5, 2016, and October 20, 2015.

I’ve given readers periodic updates because to me, this case is the most extreme example of how poorly sick inmates are treated by jailers. I feel this is one of our country’s biggest moral failings, because it goes on all the time, usually with little to no publicity.

Someone once said we can judge the quality of a society by how we treat the most vulnerable members of that society. Incarcerated people are among the most vulnerable, since they can’t take themselves to a hospital for medical care if they get sick. They are dependent on the jailers to get them care when ill.

This did not happen in the case of David Stojcevski. In June of 2014, he went to jail for failure to pay parking tickets, and it turn into a death sentence. According to news sources, he was being prescribed methadone, clonazepam, and alprazolam by a physician. He was not given any of these prescribed medications when he was in jail.

According to his autopsy, he died from acute drug withdrawal on the seventeenth day of his thirty-day sentence. Despite intense suffering, his pleas for medical attention were ignored. When he exhibited bizarre (withdrawal) behavior, he was sent to a mental health cell, where his last eleven days on earth were videotaped. His family, livid at the lack of medical care that resulted in his death, released the videotape online, where it went viral. The recording showed him naked, having repeated seizures on the jail floor as he died.

His family filed a civil case against jail personnel, and against Correct Care Solutions, the health organization that was contractually obligated to provide medical care to prisoners in the Macomb County jail.

There was a criminal investigation that went nowhere.

The Department of Justice investigated, and said they found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of jail personnel or personnel of Correct Care Solutions. The FBI had to be forced by the family to release its investigation records, and only released part of them.

These records should be helpful to the family’s civil case, and now depositions for this civil case are underway.

According to news reports, [1] Sheriff Wickersham’s sworn testimony revealed that David lost forty pounds in his last seventeen days, spent in the county jail. Over the last three days of his life, he drank almost no water. Of the thirty-three meals served to him over the last eleven days of his life, he ate perhaps three of them.

According to news reports, jail guards thought the medical staff was responsible for deciding when a patient should go to the hospital. Medical staff thought it was the guards’ responsibility to monitor the amount of food and water inmates are consuming.

Sheriff Wickersham admitted he was responsible for the well-being of the inmates, but also admitted he rarely enters the jail. Even though his office is located a few feet from the jail, he enters the jail perhaps once per month. He said he delegated oversight of medical care to another employee, who had no medical training.

News reports didn’t say whether Correct Care Solutions employees had been contacted about the state of health David was in during his last days.

News reports did say that David’s prescribing physician, Dr. Bernard Shelton, was charged with unlawful delivery of controlled substances. [2] This report says he prescribed four million “addictive pills” to Macomb County residents, though it didn’t specify over what period of time or what type of pills they were. From what he prescribed David Stojcevski, it appears to have been opioids and benzodiazepines.

In 2017, according to the state of Michigan’s medical board documentation, Dr. Shelton lost his medical license for inappropriate prescribing of controlled substances that were outside acceptable practice. His charts were reviewed by other physicians, who have the knowledge to judge such things. They said he didn’t check patients on the Michigan prescription monitoring website, he didn’t keep complete records, and lacked essential documentation.

The medical board suspended his medical license for fifteen months, fined him $10,000, and said he wouldn’t be considered for license re-instatement unless he could prove, with clear and convincing evidence, that he had good moral character, the ability to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety, the ability to follow the guidelines of re-instatement, and for it to be in the public interest that he be licensed again. At present, he does not have a license to practice in Michigan.

Now it appears Dr. Shelton will face criminal charges as well as losing his medical license.

But getting back to David Stojcevski’s case…even if his doctor prescribed opioids recklessly and inappropriately, it doesn’t release the sheriff of his obligation to make sure inmates receive medical care. Watching David suffer on the recordings made by the jail, I can’t help but wonder why no one took any action to help a man obviously in serious need of medical attention.

What if Sheriff Wickersham (or one of his deputies) walked down the street of whatever town is in Macomb County, Michigan, and he came to a man lying on the sidewalk, barely conscious, having a seizure. What would he do? I expect he would squat down beside the sick man, check for a pulse, and summon 911 for help. That’s what most citizens would do, out of common decency and concern for a fellow human.

In other words, it did not take any medical knowledge to know David was in serious need of medical help, yet no one in the whole jail called 911.

You can believe I’ll be watching this case unfold. It has the potential to be a multi-million -dollar case. In other similar cases, awards were in the three-million-dollar range. It’s sad that is takes a large financial award to change the way people do things, but in this case, it appears necessary.

It’s too late for David, but a large settlement or award against Macomb County and against Sheriff Wickersham could be another paving stone on the road of appropriate medical care for vulnerable inmates.

  1. https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/defenders/sheriff-answers-questions-under-oath-about-death-of-inmate-at-macomb-county-jail (accessed 7/4/18)
  2. https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/defenders/doctor-charged-with-distributing-opioids-to-inmate-who-died-from-withdrawal-at-macomb-county-jail (accessed 7/4/18)

Not Dying: A Worthy Goal

 

 

A new study about opioid overdose death and treatment of opioid use disorders was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this month. [1]

It showed that people who experience a non-fatal overdose have a significantly reduced risk of death if they start on medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. Naltrexone was also examined but limited data prevented conclusions about the use of this medication.

This large cohort study, done in Massachusetts on adults age 18 and older, covered the four years from 2011 and 2015. Subjects were identified as people who experienced at least one non-fatal opioid overdose and survived at least for 30 days afterward. Patients were excluded if they had a diagnosis of cancer.

This turned out to be a huge study, with over seventeen thousand study subjects.

In the year prior to the overdose event, 26% had received at least one medication to treat opioid use disorder. Twenty-two percent received opioid detoxification at least once. Forty-one percent had received an opioid prescription in the preceding year, and 28% received a prescription for a benzodiazepine within the previous year.

For these same patient, in the year after their nonfatal overdose, 30% received at least one medication for opioid use disorder (13% got buprenorphine, 8% got methadone, and 4% got naltrexone. The other 5% received more than one medication.)

People younger than 45 were more likely to received treatment with medication, as were people with diagnoses of anxiety or depressive disorders.

In the year after overdose, 4.6 of the people with a prior non-fatal overdose died, and of those, 2.1% died from opioid-related causes.

For patients treated with medication for opioid use disorder, both the all-cause mortality and opioid mortality rates were significantly reduced; they were cut approximately in half.

Patients who started n methadone after their non-fatal overdose had markedly reduced risks for both all-cause mortality and opioid-related mortality, with the adjusted risk at around half what it was for untreated patients. Results for patients on buprenorphine were nearly the same; they had not quite the degree of risk reduction as with methadone, but still significantly lower risk of death than patients on no medications.

There were no associations between risk of death for patients started on naltrexone, but the authors noted this was a smaller group, so any differences weren’t statistically significant. Of note, most of those patients were only treated for a month or two.

So what does this study tell us?

We have another study that shows medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine reduces the risk of death, this time in people with at least one prior non-fatal opioid overdose. In this study, being methadone or buprenorphine reduced deaths from all-cause mortality, as well as opioid-related mortality.

We also see, again, that only a minority of people, 30%, with nonfatal overdose were started on life-saving medication.

I was surprised the percent of people referred for medication-assisted treatment was that high. This study was done in Massachusetts, a state that’s probably at the forefront of opioid use disorder treatment. They have some excellent providers and physician leaders, and better methods to pay for treatment in that state.

I don’t think rural areas in North Carolina come close to a 30% referral rate. I’d be amazed if 2-3% were referred for evidence-based treatment with medication. I suspect most people here who survive near-fatal opioid overdoses aren’t directed, referred, or even informed about medication-assisted treatments. People get referred to OTPs around here by concerned friends and family members, but rarely by physicians.

It has started to change. In our area, of the three OB/GYN groups, we have one practice that refers patients to us. The LME (local management entity, which contracts with the state to see people on Medicaid and those with no insurance) has referred less than a handful of people for treatment. That’s a dramatic improvement from seven years ago when the LME told patients to get off methadone.

But back to the study. So even in one of the most progressive states, only 30% of people got life-saving treatment.

Let’s picture a patient who has a near-fatal episode of a different chronic disorder. Thankfully, the patient survives this episode. There’s a treatment medication for this disorder that will reduce the patient’s risk of dying by half over the next year. What do you think would happen if this patient wasn’t given or referred for that life-saving treatment?

There would be an outcry. There would be wringing of hands and rending of garments, and possibly gnashing of teeth. There would be lawyers…malpractice lawyers, swarms of them.

Yet this exact situation happens over and over, again and again, in emergency departments across this nation.

To be fair, this article doesn’t say why the patients who survived a near-fatal overdose weren’t started on medication. Maybe emergency department personnel offered this medication but the patients refused.

Realistically, there are significant barriers to starting medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorder. Methadone can only lawfully be prescribed from a properly-licensed opioid treatment program. Maybe emergency department physicians gave referrals to OTPs, but the patients didn’t show up. Maybe they referred to office-based buprenorphine prescribers.

Every time I do an intake on a patient entering treatment with MAT, I ask if there’s been an overdose in their history. Much of the time, the answer if “Yes.” I then ask what kind of recommendation for treatment they got. Most times the patient looks at me blankly. They can’t think of any kind of treatment recommendation or referral. One patients said, “They told me to quit using drugs.”

Telling people to quit using drugs IS NOT treatment for opioid use disorder. It’s sad that I even have to write this, as it should be well-known by all medical personnel.

All of us working in this field need to keep chugging along. We need to put this article in our mental back pocket, ready to talk about if/when the time comes when we hear stale old beliefs about medication-assisted treatments.

This study points to the bottom line: “We are using medications that reduce the risk of dying by half, for people who have had a prior nonfatal overdose.” Not dying is a huge benefit of treatment, perhaps the ultimate benefit.

It is long past time for medical professionals to set aside their personal opinions and what they think they know, in favor of hard data. Methadone and buprenorphine reduce the risk of dying, and patients with opioid use disorder must be informed & encouraged about these treatments. To do otherwise is malpractice.

  1. Larochelle et al., “Medication for Opioid Use Disorder after Nonfatal Opioid Overdose and Association with Mortality: A Cohort Study,” Annals of Internal Medicine, June 19, 2018