My last blog post stimulated some lively debate, and I thought this topic deserved further discussion. However, I would like to ask commenters to talk about the issue and please refrain from mentioning specific names of previous commenters. Please and make your points in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Thanks for your cooperation.
Given our present epidemic of opioid addiction and opioid overdose deaths, authorities are considering lifting the 100-patient limit for physicians who prescribe buprenorphine from office-based settings. Some people in the addiction treatment field oppose expanding access to buprenorphine in the office setting, saying some of these patients don’t get the counseling that they need, but only medication. They say there aren’t enough regulations to prevent shady physicians from opening buprenorphine mills.
Experts on both sides of the debate make good points. It’s a tough topic, but let’s explore the issues further.
1. “You don’t provide enough counseling.”
Weirdly, this used to be a main complaint against OTPs, but now OTP personnel are directing the same complaint toward office-based buprenorphine physicians.
Is there any data to help us decide how much counseling is enough for opioid-addicted patients who are started on medication, either buprenorphine or methadone?
The POATS trial gives some information on this topic. (Weiss et al, 2010, http://ctndisseminationlibrary.org/protocols/ctn0030.htm )
POATS showed that opioid-addicted patients maintained on buprenorphine/naloxone were likely to reduce illicit opioid use during treatment with the medication, but most relapsed after being tapered off the medication at twelve weeks. So this part of the study supported keeping patients on medication longer, just like the older data with methadone for heroin users. No surprises so far.
Now comes the interesting part: POATS showed similar outcomes for patients getting standard medical management versus standard medical management plus fairly intense counseling. The group with added counseling didn’t do any better than the standard medical management group.
However, the standard medical management consisted of an hour-long first visit with the doctor, and a fifteen- to twenty- minute visit per week for the first four weeks, then every two weeks.
This may be more than an average buprenorphine doctor provides in real life. It’s a little more than I do for my office-based patients. My first visit with new patients is one hour, and usually I see them back in one week for a twenty-minute visit. But then, if they are doing well, I see them every two weeks, until the patient is established in counseling. After that, if all is going well, I cut down to monthly visits. I conclude that the average buprenorphine doctor may have to increase visit frequency to get the results seen in the POAT study.
The group with enhanced counseling treatment got 45 minutes with a counselor twice per week for the first four weeks, then twice per month. At present, patients of OTPs must have two counseling sessions per month, even at the beginning of treatment. Opioid clinic opponents say twice per month isn’t even close to enough counselling, and use this point as a reason to say opioid treatment programs deliver bad care.
The POAT study was relatively short. Twelve weeks may not be long enough to detect an improvement in patients getting enhanced counseling. We know life changes usually don’t happen quickly. Maybe it is unfair to say the counseling didn’t help, because the patients weren’t followed long enough.
Now let’s look at interim methadone. Interim methadone was proposed as an alternative to long waiting lists for patients to enter an opioid treatment program. People were concerned about the welfare of opioid addicts who wanted help, but had to wait for a treatment slot to open. Interim methadone is a short-term, simplified treatment where methadone medication is started for the opioid addict, until the patient can be admitted to an OTP. With interim methadone, some counseling given, but only for emergency situations. Drug screening is still done, but is more limited than for OTP patients. These interim patients can transition to a traditional opioid treatment program when a slot opens for them.
It appears that starting just methadone, with limited other services, still helps the patients. Studies show these patients are less likely to continue to use heroin, are less likely to commit crimes, and more likely to enter a full-service OTP when admission is offered. 
Would “interim buprenorphine” work as well? I don’t think there are any studies to give us data, but it seems logical that it would.
2. “Just apply to be an OTP”
Government officials have said that if office-based physicians wish to see more than one hundred buprenorphine patients, the physician should apply to become an opioid treatment center.
When I first read this suggestion, I laughed, because it sounded so silly to me. Well-intentioned though this statement might be, it starkly exposed a lack of knowledge of the average physician’s economic circumstances.
I don’t know many doctors like me who have the necessary capital to do this. Some professionals in the field estimate it takes starting capital of around a quarter of a million dollars. I’ve seen one OTP fold due to inadequate financial support and management, and another escape closure by a narrow margin. These days, it takes deep pockets to afford the eighteen to twenty-four month process to establish an OTP. Getting the certificate of need alone can take years. (Just look at Crossroad’s struggles to get a CON in Eastern Tennessee, an area with arguably more opioid addiction per capita than most other states!)
OTP sites must be approved by multiple agencies: the DEA, CSAT, SOTA, and local authorities to name a few. The pharmacy has to meet strict regulations, as do personnel. If you want to accept Medicaid, that’s another avalanche of regulation and paperwork.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for a physician to open an OTP, but I am saying that it would cost so much that most doctors who treat opioid addiction wouldn’t consider it. I could be wrong – maybe my colleagues are making a whole lot more than me…
3. “In it for the money.”
Experts in the field who work for opioid treatment programs oppose expansion of office-based treatment, saying doctors charge exorbitant fees for their patients. Sadly, in some cases, they are right. But many office-based doctors charge reasonable fees. If we allowed doctor to treat more than one hundred opioid-addicted patients at one time with buprenorphine, wouldn’t that reduce demand for services? And when demand decreases, shouldn’t cost of treatment drop too?
For example, let’s take a community where one buprenorphine doctor is price gouging, and charging $500 per month for only one doctor’s visit. The second buprenorphine doctor charges $250 per month for the same service plus addiction counseling. Both are at their one- hundred patient limit. If both were allowed to increase the number of their patients, wouldn’t the second, more reasonably-priced doctor get some of the more expensive doctor’s business?
Conversely, some advocates for office-based treatment say that opioid treatment programs are upset because they have lost money in recent years. They accuse organizations like AATOD of wanting to limit further expansion of office-based programs because it cuts into their business. With more access, more patients would abandon OTPs for these less restrictive programs
DATA 2000 changed the landscape of opioid addiction treatment. OTPs aren’t the only option for patients seeking treatment for their opioid addiction.
My point is, both OTPs and buprenorphine doctors can accuse the other group of being in it for the money. But as I pointed out in my last blog…no medical treatment in this country is free.
4. “My medication is better than your medication.”
Patients entering opioid addiction treatment often ask me, “Which is better, buprenorphine or methadone?” I say, “Both.” Each has its advantages, and I’ve discussed this in previous blog entries. Briefly, buprenorphine is safer, since there is a ceiling on its opioid effects, but it’s more expensive. Patients on buprenorphine also seem to leave treatment prematurely more often than methadone patients. This isn’t a good thing, since the majority of these patients relapse back to illicit opioid use.
Methadone, as a full opioid agonist, may be more difficult to taper off of, and maybe fewer patients leave treatment prematurely because of that feature. Methadone has been around for fifty years now, with a proven track record. It works, and it’s dirt cheap. Methadone does have more medication interactions, but those can usually be managed if all the patient’s doctors communicate with each other.
Buprenorphine isn’t strong enough for all opioid addicts. Because it’s a partial agonist, there’s a ceiling on its opioid effect. This property means it’s much safer than methadone, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
Buprenorphine is safer than methadone, which to me is its best quality. I’ve started hundreds of patients on buprenorphine and never had an induction death. Sadly, I cannot say the same of methadone. I am not saying overdose death is impossible with buprenorphine…I’m saying it’s much less likely, and that’s worth a lot to me.
Buprenorphine’s superior safety profile is one reason it was approved for use in an office setting. Methadone is riskier to prescribe from an office, because misuse and diversion is more likely to be fatal with this drug. That’s why buprenorphine has fewer restrictions on it. Neither medication is good or bad; the difference between the medications is pharmacologic, not moral.
Next week, I’ll describe my OTP, where we provide methadone, buprenorphine under the OTP license, and buprenorphine under my office-based license, all on the same premises. I think we’ve created a continuum of care that’s able to meet the needs of patients as their recovery evolves.
At our program, it’s not one program versus another. Difference patients need different things, and the same patient may need different things at different points in recovery.
1. Schwartz et al, “A Randomized Control Trial of Interim Methadone,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2006