My decisions to revoke take home doses provoke more anger and outrage from my patients than anything else I do. This is a sensitive issue, and it feels like I’ve had to make more of these difficult decisions recently. I get it – revoking take home doses is a terrible inconvenience for patients, and expensive as well, what with the extra drive time to the opioid treatment program. And yet, there’s no denying that patients can develop problems and start misusing their take homes, or even start diverting them for sale.
To understand patients’ fury at losing take home doses, I need to describe how hard it is to get those take homes in the first place. Patients don’t waltz into treatment and get take home doses right away.
For patients on methadone at opioid treatment programs, (OTPs), eight criteria must be met before the patient can get any take home doses.
- Time in treatment
- Urine drug screens negative for illicit drugs and alcohol
- Ability to store medication safely
- Stable home environment, stable social relationships
- No recent criminal activities
- Regular clinic attendance – doesn’t frequently miss days
- No behavioral problems at the opioid treatment program
- Rehabilitative benefits of take homes outweigh the risk of take homes
Of all the requirements, time in treatment limits patients the most. Many patients do very well right from the start, with no drug use, criminal activity or any other complications. Even so, they must come every day the program is open (often 7 days per week) for a minimum of three months. After that, they can be granted two additional take home doses per week, as long as all of the other seven criteria are met. After three more months, they get one more take home per week, and so on. Once they get to the take home level where they come only once per week, they have to be compliant and in good recovery for at least one year before being allowed to get take homes every two weeks.
Patients expend time, money, and effort to get these take home doses.
That’s for methadone. For buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv, etc.) there is no federal requirement saying how long a patient has to be in treatment to get a take home dose. So long as buprenorphine patients meet the other seven criteria, they can get take homes from the start, as far as the federal standard is concerned. However, state requirements may be stricter than federal requirements. For example, my state didn’t drop the time in treatment criteria for patients in opioid treatment programs on buprenorphine, but is willing to grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, as long as the request is reasonable.
Most patients manage their take home doses perfectly. This fact gets lost in the hoopla over the few patients who don’t take their take home medication as prescribed. The actions of a few rogue patients, when made public, taint the reputations of all our patients. Their actions unfairly perpetuate stigma and bias against medication assisted treatment.
At any given time, you can google “methadone overdose on take home” or something similar and read news stories about patients who sold or gave their dose to someone who died as a result. It makes big splashy headlines and causes people in the community to wring their hands and lambaste opioid treatment programs for allowing people to get take home doses at all. In reality, many more people have died from methadone diverted from pain medicine clinics.
Part of my job as an OTP medical director is to decide, with the help and input of all staff, when a patient is taking the medication I prescribe as I prescribe it, and when it’s being misused.
Now obviously most people won’t tell OTP staff if they plan to misuse their medication, or divert it to someone for whom it was not intended, so OTPs have to have ways to assure patient compliance. One of those ways is called a “bottle recall.”
In a bottle recall, a staff person, usually the patient’s counselor, calls the patient at the given contact number and asks them to return to the facility within 24 hours so we can see that they have all their bottles and that bottles to be taken later in the week are still sealed and full of medication.
Yes, there are ways to falsify bottle recalls. In the past, patients would pull the plastic bottles apart at the seams, remove the methadone, fill the bottle with red Kool-Aid or similar, and glue the bottles back together. Some patients’ efforts were easily detected, and some do a slick job.
Now that we have pressurized seals on the take home bottles, we think it’s more difficult to get into the bottle without being detected, but some clever patient will invent a way to thwart the pressure seals…or already has done so.
If the patient fails a bottle recall, we must eliminate all take homes, at least temporarily. Sometimes patients don’t give us a working phone number, sometimes they say they never got the call, they just dropped their phone in a mud puddle and it wasn’t working, they got the message but forgot to return to the clinic, they just went out of town and only got the message when they got back, are out of town and can’t make it back for a bottle recall…we hear many reasons for a failed recall. Many are legitimate, and it’s nearly impossible to sort reality from lies.
According to patients, take home medication has been lost, stolen, left in hotel rooms, spilled in the sink, run over by cars, eaten by family pets, black bears, and other animals, burnt up house fires, and dumped out by angry spouses and highway patrolmen. In one creative story, the patient said a tree fell on her house during a storm. The great wind that felled the tree also created a sort of vacuum in her house, and a whirlwind sucked her medication bottle up, up into the sky as she watched helplessly.
Another patient said he couldn’t come in for a bottle recall because he buried his bottles in the back yard and forgot where he buried them, because he had Alzheimer’s dementia. Of course, I asked why he buried them, and he said, “So my wife wouldn’t get into them.” No, he didn’t get any more take homes.
Of course weird things can actually happen, and that’s the problem. What should I do if a patient who appears stable and who appears to be doing well, reports loss of medication? It’s a judgment call. With the help of the rest of the staff, we discuss the past stability of the patient and the believability of the report. We can’t look into the hearts of all our patients and tell who has criminal intent and who doesn’t. People can’t be perfectly assessed. I do the best I can, and with the help of the rest of the staff, make judgment calls about take home doses.
As the prescribing physician, I have a responsibility to make sure every patient who gets a take home stores it safely and takes it as directed. If a patient is unable or unwilling to do this, I have to revoke their take homes, at least for some period of time, especially if there’s evidence my patient is selling or giving away their medication.
Diversion of take home doses to someone other than the patient for whom it was prescribed is always a concern at opioid treatment programs. But we don’t want to limit freedoms for patients doing well because of the illegal activities of other patients. As with so many things relating to human behavior, it’s an issue of balance. I admit we don’t always get it right.
Some anti-methadone activists would like to change the law, and force patients on medication-assisted treatment to come daily for their doses, and eliminate take home doses. That would reduce the problem of diversion, but cause a bigger problem. It would disrupt the lives of thousands of MAT patients who take their medication as prescribed as they go about their life.
In the other extreme, some pro-MAT people say patients should be allowed to be prescribed methadone and buprenorphine a month at a time, just like medication for other chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. But the medications I prescribe, methadone and buprenorphine, have street value, and can cause euphoria in people unaccustomed to taking opioids. Therefore, because of the properties of these medications, sound medical practice tells us we have to have some safeguards in place to detect medication misused and diversion.