Archive for the ‘Controlled Substances’ Category

Walmart in North Wilkesboro, NC, Refuses to Fill Buprenorphine Prescriptions

 

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When one of my patients told me he could no longer fill his prescription for Suboxone films at Wal-Mart, I was puzzled. Surely this couldn’t be true, especially not in an area of the country where people die from opioid use disorder too frequently.

My patient said, and I have no way of verifying this information, that the DEA visited  the Walmart in North Wilkesboro, NC, and told them if they continue filling prescriptions from the doctor at the pain clinic, they would be accused of some sort of collusion. In response, the Wal-Mart – allegedly – decided not to stock any form of buprenorphine.

Yes, my fingers itched to call Walmart to determine if this was true.

Completely in keeping with Walmart’s reputation for efficiency, I was cut off the first two times I asked to speak to a pharmacist. On my third try, I left my cell number and asked the pharmacist to call me. Surprisingly, he did call, after only fifteen minutes or so.

I asked him if it was true that Walmart no longer fills buprenorphine prescriptions, and he said yes, that’s true. I asked was that for all forms of buprenorphine, including the films, Zubsolv, generics, etc., and he said yes, all of them. He was obviously reticent to give any further information. I asked him if that was for one doctor, and if my patients could still fill prescriptions there. Again, he answered that Walmart had decided not to stock any buprenorphine  products for any patient or doctor. Starting to feel a little riled, I asked him if he thought that decision would interfere with appropriate treatment of a potentially fatal illness, he just repeated Walmart had decided not to stock buprenorphine at all.

So that’s that, right?

I don’t think so.

At a time when Congress passed CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which contained specific provisions to increase access to buprenorphine, Walmart’s pharmacy refuses to sell buprenorphine?

At a time when Health and Human Services passes a new law enabling physicians to have up to two-hundred and seventy-five patients instead of only one hundred patients, Walmart’s pharmacy refuses to sell buprenorphine?

During the same week that NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, announces increased access to buprenorphine will help the opioid overdose epidemic, Walmart’s pharmacy refuses to sell buprenorphine?

Can buprenorphine be misprescribed and misused? Yes, of course it can. Not as often as all other opioid pain medications, but it can be misused. But I don’t know of any pharmacy that refuses to stock all opioids just because some patients misuse them. That’s not appropriate. Walmart hasn’t stopped selling prescriptions for Opana, oxycodone, hydrocodone, Xanax, Valium, or clonazepam.

So can’t we – and by we, I mean the brain trust that is Walmart –  think of a better option than refusing to sell buprenorphine to any patient, rather than pinpointing the real problem?

I wanted to hear the reasoning behind this decision, so I called Walmart’s corporate office, the division of Media Relations. I told the nice lady answering the phone that I was a doctor who treated addiction, and that I also had a blog. I told her about the local Walmart pharmacy’s unusual decision, and I wanted to hear Walmart’s side. I wanted to know the reason Walmart decided not to stock buprenorphine in the middle of an opioid use disorder crisis.

I waited on hold for a long while, and then the lady, Delores, said she didn’t have any information on this but that she would look into this and call me back. I gave her my cell phone and I’m still waiting.  Since this was all done on a Friday afternoon, I’m not surprised I didn’t get a return call yet.

I’m going to make some noise about this one. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I’m not going to spend any money at Walmart. I know Walmart won’t miss the couple of hundred dollars my family spends each month on household items and some groceries. But if you see me at Food Lion, Lowe’s Foods, or even better, the IGA, you’ll see a smile on my face as I check out. My decision won’t break them, but it will make me feel better.

Access to Buprenorphine Will Expand; News About CARA

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Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it was raising the limit on the number of patients each doctor can treat for opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, from the present cap of 100 patients to 275 patients. However, each doctor must first meet criteria and complete an application procedure to be approved for this higher limit.

Initially, HHS wanted to increase the limit to 200 but for some reason ended up with 275. It’s still an arbitrary number, and opioid use disorder remains the only disease to have patient enrollment limits legislated for physicians.

HHS still wants physicians to meet extra requirements before they are approved to accept 275 patients, as I blogged about in my May 8, 2016 post:

  • Have professional coverage for after-hours emergencies.
  • Provide case management services
  • Use electronic medical records
  • Must use that practitioner’s state prescription monitoring program
  • Accept third-party insurance
  • Have a plan to address possible diversion of prescribed buprenorphine medication
  • Re-apply for permission to treat up to 275 patients every three years
  • Supply yearly reports about their practice and their buprenorphine patients

For some of the reasons I names in my May 8th blog, at this time I’m not planning to request permission to treat more than 100 patients.

This measure by HHS is a good and positive thing, and will help more desperate people get treatment. Just because I have a few objections to several HSS’s requirements doesn’t mean other doctors will feel the same way. I expect many physicians treating opioid use disorder will undergo the procedure to expand their patient limit.

 

Meanwhile, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) as of last week, and the bill is going before the President for his signature.

This bill, considered weak by some members of the House, contained only a fraction of the requested money to treat addiction. However, other advocates for addiction treatment say even a weak bill is better than none.

CARA’s content addresses the following:

Expand availability of naloxone to law enforcement and first responders, in order to quickly reverse opioid overdoses and prevent deaths. I think our own Project Lazarus helped get this ball rolling many years ago, and I’m so grateful my OTP has had support from them to give our patients naloxone kits!

Expand education and prevention efforts toward teens, parents, and aging people to prevent drug abuse and promote treatment and recovery.

Encourage states to improve their prescription monitoring systems. I hope some of that money will be directed to interoperability, meaning it will be easier to access a neighboring state’s prescription monitoring program. I also hope the Veteran’s administration will start reporting their data about prescribed controlled substances, too.

Prohibit the Department of Education from rejecting financial aid for people who have had past drug offences. I didn’t know people with drug offences on their record were denied governmental financial aid. If we want people to improve themselves and their life situations, why would we deny help for them? So this measure in CARA is great.

Expand resources to identify and treat incarcerated people with substance use disorders using evidence-based treatments.

Great idea, about forty years late.

Expand drug disposal sites to keep leftover meds out of the hands of children.

Just a question I’ve always had…Of all the tons of medication which have been collected at these disposal sites, has anyone ever studied how much controlled substances are collected?

Launch a “medication assisted treatment and intervention demonstration program.”

Not sure exactly what this will look like, but good luck with all of that.

I feel like I’ve beaten my head against the brick wall of prejudice and stigma against MAT in my community for four years. All I have is a headache…and resentment towards the medical community. I’d be very happy if someone else wants to take over for a while.

Launch a program to promote evidence-based treatment of opioid use disorder.

Well, yeah. it needs to happen. Actually it needed to happen about fifteen years ago, but whatever.

Director money towards law enforcement, to get people with substance use disorders help, rather than incarceration. CARA wants law enforcement to be able to work with addiction treatment services.

I indulged a private snicker at that last one. What a change from only a few years ago.

About six years ago, I was trying to educate people about medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction. I thought I could help educate law enforcement personnel about addiction treatment, since they encounter it so much. I used the internet to find a journal for law enforcement.

I wrote to the editor, offering to write an educational article for their publication about opioid addiction treatment. My hopes weren’t especially high, but I wanted to give it a shot.

I was surprised when the journal’s editor took the time to call me in person. I was so excited!

Then the editor started talking to me like I was a naughty child. He asked what made me think it was appropriate to waste his time with such a query letter. He said I should have known better than to think any of his readers would be interested in the kind of thing I was offering to write, and he was calling to see what kind of person would be so unwise as to think otherwise.

I was stunned. I regret my reaction to him. I was so taken aback that I started apologizing to him, and said I was so sorry for bothering him and wasting his time.

In reality, he behaved like an asshole. If he didn’t want to waste time, he could have passed on the urge to call me to tell me how stupid he thought I was.

I wish I would have stuck up for myself in that conversation. I like to think I would handle it differently today.

Anyway, now, six years later, the government earmarked money to help law enforcement learn about opioid use disorder treatment.

While writing this article, I’ve come to realize I have bitterness towards people in law enforcement, medical fields, judicial, etc…when they denigrated my efforts to educate them about medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.

I don’t want this bitterness. It’s too hard on me. It’s a weight that interferes with my enjoyment of life, and I’m going to release it.

The tide has begun to turn. We have legislation addressing the terrible opioid addiction problem we have, and money earmarked to help the problem. I want to be able to work with people who may have said bad things about medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders in the past. I want to work with those people without feeling resentment and without indulging in sarcasm.

Tramadol and Tapentadol: Ultram and Nucynta

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Tramadol, the generic for the brand name Ultram, is a pain reliever that has actions on several types of brain receptors: the mu opioid, serotonin, norepinephrine, NMDA, and other receptors.

Because it stimulates the mu opioid receptors, it can cause feelings of pleasure as well as pain relief. Tramadol is a pared-down version of codeine, and it is far less active at the mu opioid receptors than its metabolite. Because it takes time for the tramadol to be metabolized in the liver to its first metabolite, some experts thought it wouldn’t appeal to addicts, who prefer an immediate high. Overall this is probably true, and tramadol has a much lower rate of addiction than other opioids, but it still causes addiction in some patients.

Some of tramadol’s pain relieving properties may also be produced by its actions on serotonin and norepinephrine receptors, since tramadol’s pain relieving capability is only partially reversed by a pure opioid antagonist like naloxone.

When this medication was first released, it wasn’t a controlled substance. That is, the DEA didn’t control it strictly like medications that can cause addiction. Now, it’s a Schedule IV drug, in some states. It does have some benefit for pain relief, but also some risk of addiction, though lower than that of hydrocodone, for example.

Tramadol is usually dosed in 50mg pills, one or two every six hours, giving the maximum dose of 400mg per day. Recreational use of this medication (to get high) is dangerous, since it causes seizures at doses higher than 400mg. In susceptible patients, it can even cause seizures at lower prescribed doses.

I’ve seen patients in tramadol withdrawal who were so sick it frightened me. This drug can produce a severe withdrawal. If a patient taking high doses stops taking tramadol suddenly, some patients have opioid withdrawal symptoms like sweating, nausea, diarrhea, high blood pressure and heart rate, and severe muscle and joint pains. The sickest patient I’ve ever seen in opioid withdrawal had been using only tramadol, in doses of around 600mg per day. She had fever to 103 degrees, and dehydration from the diarrhea and vomiting. That patient needed hospitalization.

Besides the opioid-withdrawal symptoms, some of these patients also have withdrawal symptoms similar to those seen when certain serotonin-affecting antidepressants, like Paxil and Celexa, are stopped suddenly. They can have fairly severe anxiety, depression, mood swings, and restlessness. Many times they have weird sensory experiences, often called “brain zaps,” or the sensation of electric shocks throughout the body. They can have seizures during this withdrawal.

If the patient had only physical dependency and no addiction, the dose of tramadol can usually be tapered slowly over a few weeks to months, as an outpatient. But if the patient has not only physical dependency but also the disease of addiction, the obsession and craving for the medication will usually prevent a successful outpatient taper, unless a dependable non-addict holds the pill bottle, and dispenses it as prescribed.

Traditional treatment for tramadol addiction starts with detoxification. As above, that can rarely be done as an outpatient, so medical inpatient detoxification admissions for five to seven days can be helpful. However, since tramadol acts so much like an opioid, patients ready to leave detox probably need to go on to an inpatient residential treatment center for at least thirty days. Intensive outpatient treatment probably isn’t enough support for these addicts. But that’s only my opinion, since I haven’t found any studies describing success rates with tramadol addicts.

Opioid maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine do stop the opioid-type withdrawal symptoms from tramadol, but there’s no information about the use of maintenance medications in these patients. Most doctors working in clinics won’t start a patient on maintenance medications unless the patient is also using other opioids.

Often, methadone patients at the opioid treatment centers where I work are given tramadol by their primary care doctors who think it’s a low risk medication for opioid addicts. It probably is lower in its risk for abuse, but it can cause withdrawal in patients on stable, blocking doses of methadone. [1]

Tapentadol, sold under the brand name Nucynta, is becoming a drug of abuse in my area. It is a schedule II drug, presumably because it has a higher abuse potential than tramadol. Tapentadol stimulates opioid mu receptors, and also acts as a norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitor, like some antidepressants.

Unlike tramadol, tapentadol is not a prodrug; that is, it doesn’t have to be metabolized to be active at the opioid receptor. For that reason, pain relief starts within thirty minutes of swallowing the drug. Also unlike tramadol, it has little action at the serotonin receptor. It’s marketed for use in patients with moderate to severe pain, and can be useful in patients who don’t respond to more traditional opioid medications.

If you check various drug use forums, some people clearly are able to inject the tapentadol, and even the extended-release formulation, which was manufactured to be more abuse-resistant.

I saw my first patient who was addicted to Nucynta a few years ago, and have seen other patients similarly afflicted since then. Usually, Nucynta isn’t the only drug that’s being misused, but one of many.

The bottom line is this: if you are in recovery from addiction (alcohol or drugs), this medication should be used with caution. Let your doctor know that you’re in recovery from addiction. If you must take a potentially addicting medication, be careful, and let all of your doctors know about all of your medications. Let a dependable non-addict hold the pill bottle and dispense as prescribed.

  1. Leavitt, MA, PhD, “Methadone-Drug Interactions,” Pain Treatment Topics, Addiction Treatment Forum, January 2006

 

Can Patients on Buprenorphine Get a Commercial Driver’s License?

CDL

I’ve been seeking an answer for some months now, and it appears to be: “It depends.”

One of my most successful office-based buprenorphine patients was due to renew his commercial driver’s license (CDL). He’s had his CDL for years, and has never had a serious accident. He’s been a stable patient of mine for around four years, and his last illicit opioid use was ten years ago. He started his recovery at a methadone clinic, and then transitioned to another buprenorphine doctor’s office-based practice before he transferred to me four years ago.

He’s held a commercial driver’s license (CDL) all of those years.

Since he has done so well, we’ve discussed the pros and cons of starting a slow taper off buprenorphine. Due to recurring pain issues, he would probably require intermittent opioid medication if he tapered off buprenorphine. Ultimately, we decided he would have a better quality of life and a lower risk of a relapse to uncontrolled opioid use if he remains on buprenorphine indefinitely.

Like so many of my patients, once his addiction was treated, he excelled at his job, and he’s received several promotions over the past few years. However, even though he doesn’t drive a truck every day, he’s still required to keep a CDL in order to keep his job.

When he went for his usual Department of Transportation driver’s exam this year, he was turned down for his CDL. He was told that people on narcotics can’t get a commercial driver’s license.

The Department of Transportation has undergone some changes over the past few years. Back when I was in primary care, any doctor could fill out the DOT form for a patient to get a CDL. Some doctors were rather slap-dash in their efforts, and I suppose that’s why doctors now have to quality to do these CDL exams. Starting a few years ago, doctors must take a training course and pass a test in order to register to do DOT exams. All such doctors are listed on the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.

When he was asked about his medications, he lied and told them he wasn’t on any medications. He was conflicted about this; he wanted to tell the truth, but was afraid that if he did so, his livelihood would be in danger. We discussed this issue at one of his visits, and I told him what I knew at the time. Patients maintained on methadone can’t get a CDL if they reveal that to the medical examiner, and I doubted buprenorphine would be viewed any differently. I also told him the DOT doesn’t test for buprenorphine. He passed all DOT exams in the past because the examiner didn’t know he was on maintenance medication. DOT doesn’t test for anything but marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and PCP. (Yes, you read that right. PCP.)

The DOT test will detect opiates, that is, substances derived from the opium poppy, but won’t detect synthetic opioids like methadone, buprenorphine, fentanyl, and the like.

I also told my patient that I did not feel he was impaired from the buprenorphine I prescribed, as he had a tolerance to any sedating effect it could have. I told him I’m much rather meet him on the road than a driver who took Ambien the night before. And I told him it was ultimately up to him to decide what to tell the DOT examiner.

So my patient didn’t tell the DOT examiner that he was on buprenorphine. He was afraid if he did tell the examining doctor, his employer would find out and he would be fired. He was also afraid he wouldn’t be able to get his CDL if he told the truth. As it turns out, he was correct.

As expected, my patient’s DOT drug screen was negative for all substances. However, this examiner checked the state prescription monitoring program, where he saw my patient’s prescriptions for Suboxone. So the examiner denied my patient his CDL.

I felt so badly for my patient. Here he was, as successful as a person can be in recovery, being turned down both because he is taking buprenorphine, and also because he didn’t tell the DOT examining doctor that he was taking buprenorphine.

I wanted to advocate for my patient, and in a misguided effort, wrote a letter to my state’s DOT. It was a great letter, emphatically worded, with data references, but I sent it to the wrong place. Eventually, my patient got a letter from the state DOT saying it was fine with them that he keep driving, but that suitability for a CDL wasn’t under their purview. When I called for more information, they told me I needed to contact the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA).

It took repeated calls (six) to this government agency before I was able to talk to someone, but finally I reached a person who gave me the scoop. Her name was Angela, and she told me that if my patient was on methadone, there was no way he could get a CDL. She also said that with buprenorphine, it was decided on a case-by-case basis, and that I would need to talk to the physician doing my patient’s DOT exam, and that the decision was ultimately up to this person. She also said my patient had the right to seek a second opinion about his CDL.

OK, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. Before my patient spent time and money talking to a doctor for a second opinion, I thought I should try talking to the first doctor who had turned him down. This doctor was on staff at the same teaching hospital where I did my residency in Internal Medicine about a billion years ago, so I hoped he would be educated and open to the facts I wanted to present.

After all, I thought, science was on my side. Studies have not shown differences of reaction times and driving abilities between patients maintained on buprenorphine and normal controls. There is no evidence that I’m aware of that shows maintained patients shouldn’t be behind the wheel. That fact, plus my patient’s successful recovery should convince this doctor.

It did not.

I’ll spare my readers painful details, but this doctor was not open to what I had to say. I felt like this doctor was so hung up on the fact that my patient had lied that he couldn’t hear anything else I was saying. Yes, I told him, my patient did lie, but he did so out of fear that his boss would find out about his substance use disorder, and that he would lose his job. He has a wife and kids to support, and I think many people would lie in similar circumstances.

After I had harped on that for some time, this doctor said that people prescribed narcotics can’t get a CDL, that was that, case closed.

When doctors say things like that, I get confused. I hate the term “narcotic,” because it means different things to different people. To some, it means opioids. To others, it means illicit drugs. If we look at the root of the word, “narco,” which means sleep, a narcotic is a substance that puts people to sleep.

So what does the FMCSA mean when they use the word “narcotic?”

For the purposes of my conversation with this doctor, it meant my patient would not be getting his CDL.

I went to the website of the FMCSA to see exactly the wording of their statement. Here it is:

If a driver uses a drug identified in 21 CFR 1308.11 (391.42(b)(12)) or any other substance such as amphetamine, a narcotic, or any other habit forming drug, The driver is medically unqualified. There is an exception: the prescribing doctor can write that the driver is safe to be a commercial driver while taking the medication. In this case, the Medical Examiner may, but does not have to certify the driver.”

I thought 21 CFR 1308 would give me more exact information, but when I found it on the internet, it does not. It’s just the law that categorizes potentially addicting drugs into Schedules 1-5.

Does this mean that any person filling a controlled substance can’t get a commercial driver’s license? Really? Will there be any people left to drive trucks if everyone prescribed a controlled substance is excluded from driving?

Or will this unfairly apply only to patients on medication-assisted treatment? I don’t know.

Anyway, my patient took a copy of the letter I had written for him to another DOT examining physician, for a second opinion. This doctor granted him a time-limited CDL, and my patient is OK for now.

For now. He’s still worried about his job security in the future, and so am I. Several of my patients are on buprenorphine, and I worry if they will also be denied. I’m happy to advocate for them – assuming they are doing well – but it feels a bit unfair to me.

I have patients on methadone and buprenorphine through our opioid treatment program (OTP). They can get CDLs without problem, because their data is more protected than my office-based patients. OTP data is not posted on the prescription monitoring program in my state because privacy laws prevent this. There has been talk recently about changing this law. But for now, a patient attending the OTP, on the same medication as my office-based patient who was initially denied his CDL, can be granted a CDL because OTP records are held to a higher standard of confidentiality.

The Veterans Administration, where large quantities of controlled substances are prescribed, does not (yet) report to the state prescription monitoring program, so those patients’ medications also would not be revealed to a DOT medical examiner.

It’s a weird world.

If my patient is turned down in the future for his CDL, would he qualify for disability? It seems like that should be the case, and that’s another question I have.

But my patient wants to work. He doesn’t want to go on disability.

I understand that driving commercially is a safety-sensitive job, and people doing those kinds of jobs aren’t granted the same confidentiality about drug use and addiction as people doing other jobs. It’s the same in other safety-sensitive jobs, like medical professionals, pilots, and the like. I drive frequently, and I do want all drivers to be safe.

But I would like for decisions about who can drive and who cannot to be made on the basis of science and fairness, not on persona bias or happenstance.

Addiction Medicine: News Briefs

News Briefs

Following are several short news updates I thought might interest readers:

Heroin Vaccine

In a blog I posted in 2013, I mentioned a new heroin vaccine being developed. Last fall, the researcher got a 1.6 million dollar grant to continue research studies on the vaccine.

Kim Janda, researcher at the Scripps Institute in California, created the vaccine. The idea behind the vaccine is that it tricks the body into making antibodies against a substance, in this case heroin. After the person has formed these antibodies, if heroin is used, antibodies bind to the drug and keep it from attaching to brain receptors. Since heroin can’t bind to the brain’s pleasure receptors, the person has no euphoric effect from heroin.

Every type of opioid needs a specific antibody to be created, so Dr. Janda plans to try to create a vaccine against oxycodone and hydrocodone, too.

Such vaccines could be another tool with which to fight opioid addiction, but would need to be combined with psychosocial counseling for maximum effectiveness. The vaccine prohibits the opioid from attaching to mu opioid receptors, but would not alleviate cravings for opioids. It would have no effect on withdrawal symptoms, either.

Thus far, the vaccine looks promising in rat studies. We have no human data, and researchers in Virginia Commonwealth University will be helping with primate studies. If these are as successful, human trials could then begin, meaning it would take years to come to market, if it is successful.

I wonder if the vaccine can be overridden. In other words, is it possible to inject so much heroin that all the antibodies are used? If so, could extra heroin still cross the blood-brain-barrier to cause euphoria? I don’t know. Stay tuned for more data.

Frontline: Chasing Heroin

Did everyone get a chance to watch the PBS Frontline segment about opioid addiction and its treatment? You can watch the entire show at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/chasing-heroin/

I missed this program when it originally aired on 2/23/16, but watched it last weekend, and I’m glad I did. It was very good.

The program started by giving the history of opioid addiction in our country, and the factors that lead to the over-prescribing of opioids starting in the late 1990’s. The program described the inappropriate marketing of OxyContin, the pain management movement, and mistakes about assumed rates of opioid addiction in patients prescribed opioids long-term.

The program showed how many people who were addicted to prescription opioids eventually switched to cheaper and more potent heroin. They described the usual progression from snorting or smoking heroin to injecting it.

Heroin addiction currently disproportionately affects the white middle class, unlike past decades, when heroin was seen as an inner-city, minority problem. Some of the people interviewed rightfully pointed out possible racism of our current focus on the problem of opioid addiction. Since the white middle class got addicted, people are talking about how to fix this epidemic. When minorities were affected, not so much attention was lavished upon the affected population.

The show interviewed key people in this nation who know much about addiction and its treatment. Barry Meier, who wrote the book “Pain Killer” back when it was not considered proper to criticize Purdue Pharma, was interviewed, as was Sam Quinones, who wrote, “Dreamland.” (I reviewed this book recently on my blog, saying it did a great job of explaining how heroin has quietly swept across the U.S.)

Dr. Thomas McLellan, former deputy director of the ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy) spoke about addiction, and Nora Volkow, from NIDA, was interviewed about the disease aspect of addiction. She explained how addicting drugs damage the brain, making it harder to stop using drugs once they’ve been started.

Robert DuPont, our first Drug Czar, was interviewed and he gave some historical perspective.

Facts from experts are helpful, but real stories from affected people have more emotional power. The program followed several opioid-addicted people as they sought help. Their paths through addiction and attempts at treatment illustrate many of the problems of our present treatment system, or rather lack of system.

I was mostly pleased with how the program handled medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone/Subutex, etc.). The program showed the story of a community in Washington State, hard hit with heroin addiction, which voted not to allow a methadone clinic to become established, a classic example of the NIMBY attitude. One of the people who objected to the methadone clinic then had a son who became addicted, and the program showed his gradual change of mind about addition treatment programs.

The program said what we in the field know too well: MAT is an evidence-based and proven form of treatment, yet it remains “controversial” to many people working in addiction treatment.

I felt that issue could have been pushed farther and examined in more depth, but of course that’s my bias.

Toward the end of the show, an interviewer asks a doctor something to the effect of, “…so you can prescribe OxyContin to as many patients as you want, but you can only prescribe Suboxone to one hundred people???” The doctor answers yes, that’s what the law says.

Touché.

Also towards the end of the show, they discussed Seattle’s LEAD program. I liked to hear a law enforcement officer say, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” Given that LEAD is based on harm-reduction principles, the program showed that though LEAD helps a great many people, other people don’t choose to participate in drug addiction treatment.

Thank God that law enforcement is starting to admit law enforcement can’t fix addiction.

Addiction Medicine Finally Recognized as a Medical Specialty

Earlier this month, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) announced that Addiction Medicine achieved specialty status.

It’s hard to explain quite what this means, but I’ll try. Addiction Medicine is now formally recognized as a specialty field of medicine with a distinct arena of clinical knowledge, grounded in evidence-based information. Board certified Addiction Medicine physicians should now be recognized as experts in this field.

It is also hoped that recognition of Addiction Medicine as a specialty will result in medical students and residents getting more training about drug use and abuse, and addiction prevention and treatment. We already have fellowship training programs for Addiction Medicine, and hopefully these will expand, to train more physicians in this specialty.

According to the information sent by the American Board of Addiction Medicine, addiction and risky substance use accounts for about a third of all hospital costs, and is responsible for twenty percent of all deaths in the United States. Slightly fewer than four thousand of us are certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine, so more doctors are needed in this important field of medicine.

I am so grateful to all of the people who worked so hard to get this recognition of Addiction Medicine. I know this is something the members of the American Society of Addiction Medicine have been striving toward for over a decade. Thanks to all of you!

 

The Opioid Summit

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Last week I went to a conference in Statesville, NC, called the Opioid Summit. It was hosted by Partners Training Academy, which is part of Partners Behavioral Health. This is an agency that provides mental health and substance abuse treatment for part of North Carolina.

I did not have extraordinarily high expectations for this conference. I’ve gone to plenty of such conferences around the state. The state-wide meetings are good, and regional meetings are decent, too. But I saw they had Dr. Thomas McLellan as a lunch speaker on the topic of integrating addiction care into mainstream medicine, and I wanted to hear him. Besides, it’s nice to socialize with people in this field I haven’t seen for a while.

My expectations were far exceeded.

We had five breakout groups in session at the same time, and on a whim, I went to the one titled, “Law Enforcement Innovation.” I told my friends I was headed to that one, and they thought it was odd. “Why? You know law enforcement doesn’t like MAT!”

But I knew there had to be a reason he was on the schedule, and I knew the speaker. He and I served on the North Carolina Board of Nursing advisory committee at the same time a few years ago, and I thought he was a pretty good guy, and knowledgeable. He was our state’s SBI Special Agent in Charge of drug diversion crimes back then.

Now he’s retired from the SBI, and is working for NC’s Harm Reduction Coalition, heading their LEAD program in Wilmington, NC. The presentation he made to a room full of social workers, drug addiction counselors, doctors, and policemen and women was excellent.

Mr. Varney explained the Harm Reduction Coalition’s new program in Wilmington, NC, called LEAD, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. This is a pre-arrest program that diverts people caught committing low-level crimes to drug addiction treatment and other services, based on their needs. This shunts them away from incarceration. These people are given a chance to avoid jail time and a criminal record if they want to undergo an evaluation by a case manager. The case manager decides what services are needed, and arranges the referrals. They are directed to drug addiction treatment including MAT, mental health services, housing assistance, food pantries…whatever they need.

Of course, the biggest drug addiction challenging our state and our nation is to opioids. According to Mr. Varney, North Carolina had around thirteen hundred drug overdose deaths last year, and 25% of those were from heroin. He didn’t give a breakdown of how many LEAD participants had opioids as a main drug of use, but it’s likely to be a majority.

Mr. Varney pointed out that it costs taxpayers $65 to incarcerate one person in minimum security for one day. That’s almost $24,000 per year. For comparison, the daily cost of the LEAD program is about $29 per day for the most intensive treatment, but then drops to around $17.50 per day for continuing participation. Most incarcerated people have committed low-level crimes to support drug use and drug addiction. In North Carolina, around eighteen thousand are incarcerated per year.

LEAD differs from drug court because LEAD participation starts before arrest, while drug court monitors people after they plead guilty. Since it’s spear-headed by the Harm Reduction Coalition, the program adheres to harm reduction principles. This program is intended to be non-judgmental and non-coercive, and is intended to offer a way to reduce the harm done to individuals and their community from drug use or drug addiction.

LEAD also differs from other programs because it requires the cooperation, participation, and communication from many organizations. First, law enforcement officers in the field must believe in this program to be willing to talk to the people they encounter in their job. Then, case managers help match each participant with needed resources. Representatives from those resources meet with case managers several times per month to discuss each participant’s progress.

I know what you are thinking…that’s great, but will it allow patients to enter medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone? Yes. Mr. Varney specifically identified medication-assisted treatment as a necessary component of this program, particularly since so many of the would-be arrestees have opioid addiction.

Sometimes I hear what I want to hear, and I can’t remember his exact words, but regarding MAT, he said something like, “I’m not here to debate the science of medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine but take it from me, it has to be part of this program to help these people.”

It was all I could do to keep from shouting “Hallelujah!”

I was delighted to see a top cop, the ultimate law enforcement officer, endorse treatment with methadone and buprenorphine. I sat in the audience grinning for several minutes.

The program in Wilmington, NC, is just getting started, but similar program in Seattle and Santé Fe have had success with LEAD programs.

Santé Fe had the highest overdose death rate in the nation, and since they started a program similar to LEAD, people who finished a treatment program had markedly less recidivism.

All parties benefit from having LEAD available. The person facing arrest gets an opportunity to get his needs assessed and be connected with needed help, instead of going to jail and getting a criminal record. Police benefit because they turn over an individual to a case manager instead of spending three hours arresting that person. Society benefits because it costs less to treat than incarcerate.

Everyone wins.

Right now, funding is the biggest obstacle to developing programs like LEAD. Hopefully someday, after LEAD has more data to show it works, taxpayer money could be earmarked for similar programs. Right now, funding comes from grants and from the cities that have established these programs.

I am delighted to see such an innovative program start in North Carolina. Since it is operated by the Harm Reduction Coalition, I know it will be well-run. I’m eager to see data from this program after it’s been active a few more years.

And yes, Dr. McLellan’s presentation was excellent, as usual.

 

Diversion of Prescribed Medications

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I hope all my readers had a great holiday.

I followed my own advice about avoiding burnout and took eleven days off work. That’s the most days in a row that I’ve taken off for many years, and it was great. I went on a short but fun cruise of the Bahamas, during which I rested, spent time with family, read, ate great food, and tried to tan. (I know the sun is not a friend to the skin of pale people, but I just wanted a tiny bit of color. Instead, I think I bleached out to a lighter shade of pale.)

I also took a vacation from blog-writing, so I looked at previous blog entries I’ve written but never posted, to have something for my blog this week.

Toward the end of last year, I was intrigued by an article in my local newspaper. The newspaper published a story about the arrests of thirty or forty local residents on drug-related charges on the front page. In this article, a representative of the county’s Sherriff’s office narcotics unit said he estimated that ninety percent of people arrested for illegally selling prescription pain pills got them from doctors outside the county.

That seemed odd to me. My perception, shaped as it is by my work in the county’s only opioid addiction treatment program, has been just the opposite – that physicians in the area prescribe a great deal of the illegally sold controlled substance pills.

Indeed, I would be idealistic if I assumed that none of my own patients have ever sold their buprenorphine take home doses, despite my best efforts to prevent this.

Curious, I asked our state’s Injury and Violence Prevention branch of the NC Division of Public Health about how our county compares with other counties, in number of prescriptions written per capita. This last part is important, because more heavily populated counties have higher numbers of prescriptions, but only because there are more people living in the county.

One of the epidemiologists wrote me the next day, and said in 2014, there were 280 controlled substance prescriptions written for every 100 people living in my county. This compared with a state-wide rate of 201 controlled prescriptions per 100 people. He said that while our county was in the top 20 counties for number of controlled substances prescribed per capita, it was not number one in the state.

Since opioid treatment programs do not report any data to state prescription monitoring programs, none of my prescribing data would be captured in this information, with the exception of a dozen office-based buprenorphine patients I see in this county. Patients in office-based addiction practices do have their prescriptions reported to the state’s prescription monitoring website.

Anyway, back to my county’s prescribing rate…The prescribing rate quoted above is for all controlled substances, not only opioids. It includes opioid pain pills, benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin), potentially addicting sleeping pills (zolpidem, or Ambien), and stimulants (amphetamines like Adderall, also Ritalin, Provigil, Nuvigil).

So the county has one of the highest prescribing rates of the state. That doesn’t necessarily mean any of the prescribed medications are diverted to the black market. However, past studies do show that higher prescribing rates are associated with higher diversion rates. But perhaps this county is different, as the sheriff’s office stated.

Furthermore, mere numbers can’t tell us if doctors are prescribing appropriately or not. Perhaps people living in my county have a higher-than-normal need for opioids, benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, and stimulants…

Food for thought, which I haven’t completely digested yet.

 

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