Archive for the ‘Government Behaving Badly’ Category

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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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)

When the DEA Raids Buprenorphine Doctors

 

 

I had another blog post ready to go this week, but I’m postponing it to blog about another situation.

So far this year, two well-known and respected Addiction Medicine physicians have had their offices raided by the DEA.

The first one occurred in March of this year. Dr. Stuart Gitlow, the past president of ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), who has a small buprenorphine (Suboxone and other name brands) practice in Woonsocket, Massachusetts, was raided by the DEA.

According to news reports, [1] the DEA raided his home and office, looking at patient records for evidence of wrongdoing. They wouldn’t tell him what they were looking for, and wouldn’t comment to reporters later because, they say, the raid was part of an ongoing investigation.

I searched the internet for some sort of follow up story, but found none.

Dr. Gitlow is an unlikely target for a DEA raid. He is so famous for his work in the field of Addiction Medicine that he has a Wikipedia page. According to that page, he is a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of addiction. He earned an MBA from University of Rhode Island, and went to Mt. Sinai School of Medicine where he earned his M.D. degree. He did a psychiatry residency at University of Pittsburgh, along with a Master’s degree in Public Health. Then he went to Harvard University for a forensic fellowship.

I’ve heard him give lectures at ASAM meetings and he’s as good as lecturers get. He teaches at the University of Florida, and he’s on the editorial board of the Journal of Addictive Diseases.

Dr. Gitlow confirmed in an interview that the DEA looked at patient records, but he had no idea what they were looking for.

Then in early May of this year, the offices of Dr. Tom Reach were raided by the DEA. Dr. Reach, like Dr. Gitlow, is an outspoken advocate of medication-assisted treatment.

A news article [2] described how Dr. Reach’s nine treatment centers were closed for the DEA inspection, disrupting patient care. Dr. Reach’s home was also raided. In the interview, he said he heard the DEA thought he was doing something wrong, but he had no idea what it could be.

They also looked for controlled substances, but Dr. Reach, like most buprenorphine physicians, has never stored these drugs on-site. The record keeping that is necessary for storing controlled substances is considerable. He doesn’t contract with public insurance, so it couldn’t be problem with that.

Dr. Reach said the DEA took hard drives and cell phones, making it harder to continue with patient care.

Dr. Reach was the past president of the Tennessee chapter of ASAM. Dr. Reach was one of several physicians who were on the expert panel convened last year to draft Tennessee’s new guidelines around physician prescribing of buprenorphine. He’s spent his own time at the Tennessee statehouse, advocating for patients with opioid use disorder and their physicians.

Thus far, no charges have been filed against either physician.

Both physicians are politically active. Dr. Gitlow ran unsuccessfully, twice, for state representative in Massachusetts, as a Democrat. Dr. Reach contributes money – some would say a large amount of money – to political candidates he supports. [3]

These two leaders in addiction medicine are far from the only doctors being raided. Dr. Larry Ley, who had several treatment programs in Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis, was ultimately acquitted of felony drug charges that he faced. Law enforcement personnel, posing as patients, lied about their need for opioid use disorder treatment. Dr. Ley was then charged when he issued prescriptions for Suboxone. [4]

I thought it was a felony to obtain a prescription for a controlled substance under false pretenses. How can a DEA agent pose as a patient and lie about their substance use history to obtain a prescription? Wouldn’t that be an illegal act? Maybe that’s why Dr. Ley was acquitted.

In this case, it seems the county’s head of drug task force didn’t agree with the idea of medication-assisted treatment, saying, ““This type of ruse of a clinic perpetuates the problem because people are still addicted to the drug, and this is what is happening,” said the head of the drug task force, in a press conference held after Ley’s arrest. “This is not fixing the problem.” [4]

Dr. Ley had to close his treatment centers, was left penniless due to legal fees, and is now suing both the city of Carmel and the DEA for conspiring to force him out of business.

Meanwhile, the opioid overdose death rate in Indiana has risen by double digits.

The DEA is authorized to inspect buprenorphine practices at any time. If you are a long-time reader of my blog, you’ll recall my office was inspected in late 2012. I wrote about the experience in a blog post on 12/16/12. The agents were pleasant and cordial. They were willing to meet with me when patients were not scheduled, so it didn’t interrupt my practice at all. They asked about how many patients I had, asked to see copies of patient prescriptions, and asked if I stored any controlled substances on site (of course not). The two agents were polite and cordial.

What happened to Drs. Reach and Gitlow was very different. They were both raided by the DEA, with a warrant that says material can be seized. In a raid, the DEA is so convinced that there’s criminal activity that they take computers, cell phone, and records. Inevitably this disrupts the medical treatment of patients. For both Dr. Reach and Dr. Gitlow, patients had to be turned away from scheduled appointments because of the raids. As Dr. Reach pointed out in a newspaper interview, this can have very real and possibly fatal outcomes for patients depending on buprenorphine to provide stability and keep them from using illicit opioids like heroin.

For a DEA raid to take place, investigators have expectations of finding criminal activities. They would not raid for issues like overprescribing, substandard care and the like. These types of problems would be handled by the state’s medical board.

Of course, I don’t know the circumstances that lead to these DEA raids. It’s remotely possible that a Harvard-educated physician leader of ASAM is slinging dope on some corner of Woonsocket, Massachusetts, in his free time…but I doubt it.

The trouble with these DEA raids is that while they make the papers when they happen, no news releases state what was found. If no wrongdoing was discovered in the masses of material seized by the DEA, the public won’t hear about this. All that remains is the taint of criminal investigation.

I’ve been working with some organizations to try to get more office-based physicians interested in treating patients with opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, a potentially life-saving medication. I’ve reassured worried doctors that they won’t become DEA targets just because they prescribe buprenorphine. I told them that unless they store medication on premises, the chances of getting raided are very small.

I hope I haven’t erred in telling new doctors this. I legitimately thought the nation’s leading health experts are pushing treatment for opioid use disorders, to stem the tide of opioid overdose deaths we’ve been having oer the past twenty years.

Now, with raids on well-respected practitioners, I don’t know what to think.

  1. http://www.woonsocketcall.com/news/city-doctor-s-home-office-raided-by-fbi/article_1e4270a0-2bb5-11e8-be84-b7f0c2501d63.html
  2. http://www.wjhl.com/local/dea-agents-raid-watauga-recovery-centers-in-tn-va-and-nc/1156361147
  3. http://doctorsofcourage.org/ralph-thomas-reach-md/
  4. https://www.thedailybeast.com/addiction-doctor-dea-shut-me-down-so-mayor-could-clean-up-town?ref=scroll

Depraved Indifference or Reckless Disregard?

 

 

 

 

 

I have a weird affinity for old “Law and Order” reruns. I’m not talking the lesser “Law and Order” spin offs like Criminal Intent and SVU…I prefer the originals. With a total of twenty seasons, there’s almost always an episode being broadcast on one channel or another.

I recently watched – for perhaps the third or fourth time – an episode about a man with serious mental illness who killed a woman by hitting her on the head with a rock. This man had auditory hallucinations due to schizophrenia. As he described it, his “bad uncle up in Yonkers” told him to kill people. Of course, he wasn’t guilty, by reason of insanity.

But the show rambled on, and detectives discovered this person was recently released from jail at Riker’s Island, where he hadn’t received much in the way of medical care. He hadn’t been properly treated for his schizophrenia, due to cost containment strategies of the company that provided medical care for prisoners. After he served his sentence, this sick man was dropped off with no medication and no plans for follow up medical care.

Jack McCoy, indignant and outraged (as he so often is on “Law and Order”), decided to charge the owner of the healthcare company with manslaughter. The physician assigned to treat the schizophrenic man was initially investigated, but he was able to prove he was threatened with being fired if he used expensive drugs or sent patients to the hospital. So then the owner of the company became the focus of Jack’s ire.

I don’t remember the exact count he was charged with, but the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to about a year’s incarceration. – in the very jail that his company contracted with to provide healthcare. The chief District Attorney, Nora Lewin, jokes that his immune system had better be good, because prisoners there don’t receive good health care.

I was thinking again about numerous news reports of patients with substance use disorders who die in jail, and it made me wish we had a few Jack McCoys in various locations.

Do you remember the case of David Stojcevski? I blogged about this horrible case on 10/20/2015, and again 2/25/2016. As a reminder, David was sentenced to thirty days in jail for non-payment of traffic tickets. He died on the seventeenth day of his sentence from what the autopsy said was “Acute withdrawal from chronic benzodiazepine, methadone, and opiate medication.” He had been on physician-prescribed methadone, clonazepam, and alprazolam, but was denied all of these medications during his incarceration. He was also not treated for the predictable withdrawal from these medications.

The family released videotape of his immense suffering (he had been moved to a “monitored” cell when he began to exhibit delirium) and are suing Macomb County, Michigan, where this jail was located. They are also suing Correct Care Solutions, the healthcare provider contracted to attend to the health of inmates.

The Justice Department investigated to see if criminal charges should be levied against the people who allowed David to die by denying him medical care. They investigated the charge of “deliberate indifference” on the part of jail staff and Correct Care Solutions personnel. Last year, the U.S. Attorney for that area announced they couldn’t find evidence for criminal intent on the part of jail workers and Correct Care Solutions that met the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, so criminal charges were not brought.

Several days ago. the FBI was forced to release part of the documents regarding their investigation.

From the little that was released, the FBI discovered David had no intake of food during the last five days of his life, and that there were no medical visits from medical staff for the last 48 hours of his life. One guard said he got the impression from medical staff that they believed he was “faking” withdrawal symptoms.

The physician employed by Correct Care Solutions, after observing David, said he was not having seizures, and that he was faking those symptoms. An FBI physician said David should have been started on a withdrawal protocol, and that his fifty-pound weight loss and dehydration should have raised alarms. His opinion was that David died because of deliberate indifference to his medical needs.

The FBI’s records on their investigation showed there were medical visits that weren’t documented, or had poor documentation. Other news reports say 12 people have died in that county jail since 2012.

Even though there will be no criminal charges against the people who should have prevented David’s death by providing routine medical care, and the family’s civil case will proceed – at a snail’s pace.

I don’t understand the decision of the Justice Department. How can jails and prisons legally deny medical care to inmates? Isn’t that against the law? And if an inmate dies from lack of medical care from a completely preventable cause, shouldn’t that be illegal? Doesn’t this violate the 8th Amendment?

There’s a phrase I learned from “Law and Order.” It is res ipsa loquitor, and means “the thing speaks for itself.”

Surely the death of David Stojcevski from a treatable condition speaks for itself.

My question is this: how much louder do similar tragedies need to speak before changes are made to the disgraceful way inmates are treated?

Trump and the Opioid Grants: What Will Happen Next?

"Du-oh!"

“Du-oh!”

 

 

 

 

 

The front page article in the January 9, 2017 issue of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly is the jumping-off point for this blog entry. This excellent article outlines in plain language how the $ 1 billion Cures Act allocations were supposed to be used.

But on January 20, 2017, President Trump placed a sixty-day freeze on regulatory actions and executive orders that have been published but not yet taken effect. I scoured the internet to try to figure out if Obama’s Cures Act falls into this category. I’m still not certain it does.

The Cures Act, passed in late December as one of President Obama’s last actions had strong bipartisan support. Under this act, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is to administer funding for grants to each state. These grants are called State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis Grants, or Opioid STR for short.

The amount allotted to each state isn’t based on opioid overdose death rates, but rather on treatment gaps in each state. “Treatment gap” is a term for how many people need addiction treatment in a state compared to how many people are actually getting it. The bigger the gap, the more money that state will be allotted out of the $1 billion pot, to be disbursed over two years.

The states with the biggest treatment gaps are California, due to receive nearly $45 million, and Texas and Florida, both to receive around $27 million.

If dollars were spent based on per capita overdose death rates, the three top states would be West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Kentucky. This, of course, led to some criticism of the way money allocations were decided. Some people feel that the states that need money most desperately won’t get a big enough piece of the money pie.

As the ADAW article points out, some people feel the method of allocation is unfair to states where action has already been taken to treat substance use problems, out of their own state budget. By proactively treating problems, these states won’t qualify for as much of this federal money as states that ignored their opioid problem.

Other complaints are that states which decided not to expand Medicaid will now be awarded more than their share of this federal money, since their treatment gap is wider due to fewer citizens with substance use disorder who qualify for Medicaid to pay for substance use disorder treatment.

Probably no method of dividing the money can be perfectly fair to all states. I think the Cures Act does as good a job as is possible under the circumstances.

However, I am troubled by one aspect of this money distribution.

Each state can spend their federal money as they see fit.

In the ADAW article, H. Westley Clark, past director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, said, “State attitudes towards agonist medications will be a controlling factor.”

Oh dear. This could be bad.

States which have held a strong bias against methadone or buprenorphine as treatment for opioid use disorders may decide not to spend money on this evidence-based form of treatment.

But now, with President Trump’s sixty-day moratorium on new legislation, no one knows what will come to pass. There are so many uncertainties.

In the January 23, 2017 issue of ADAW, the front page article outlines how the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could adversely affect the treatment of opioid use disorders. As we know, Trump campaigned on a promise to kill this healthcare Act. No one knows what he will decide to do, or how it will affect the 30 million people who have health insurance through the ACA now.

As the ADAW article points out, much of the gains in funding for treatment of substance abuse and mental health illnesses came from the ACA, and from the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act which preceded it. This last Act made it illegal for insurance companies to cover physical health problems while denying coverage for mental illness and substance abuse. Other laws made it illegal to refuse coverage for pre-existing illnesses. Denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions was common practice until relatively recently. When insurance companies could pick and choose who they wanted to insurance, patients who needed health insurance the most couldn’t get it.

Would canceling the ACA affect patients with substance use disorder who are already in treatment? Yes, of course, though I’m not sure to what degree. I know it would be more of an issue for my patients in office-based treatment with buprenorphine than for my patients enrolled at the opioid treatment program.

In the opioid treatment program setting, I don’t know of any patients with Obamacare who were able to get reimbursed for what they paid to our treatment program. These patients paid out of pocket even if they had insurance. I don’t know what the problem was, but I do know I had some bizarre conversations with physician reviewers. One physician said my patients with opioid use disorder, treated with methadone, needed to go a cheaper route, and get methadone prescribed in a doctor’s office. Of course, this is illegal, and has been since 1914, but that fact didn’t budge the reviewer.

Some of my office-based buprenorphine patients were able to enter treatment only because they got Obamacare. I would estimate I have eight to ten patients on Obamacare at present. They get reimbursed for the office visit and drug screening charges they pay to me, and get their medication paid for at the pharmacy, except for a co-pay.

Some of these patients have high deductibles, and still have to pay out of pocket for part of the year, but once they meet the deductible, have their opioid use disorder treatment paid for.

We’ve had the usual difficulties with prior authorizations with these patients, but it’s been no more difficult than patients with traditional insurance.

What would happen to my patients with Obamacare if it suddenly disappears? I assume most couldn’t afford treatment and would drop out. Data about patients who leave treatment for any reason shows relapse rates in the 85-90% range, so most of these people would go back to active addiction. I’ve become very attached to these patients, and this idea breaks my heart.

About a month ago, I was talking to Kristina Fiore, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who has done some outstanding reporting on the nation’s opioid use disorder epidemic. She called me for some background information for an article she was researching. Near the end of our conversation, she said something to the effect that everyone is always talking so negatively about our present opioid addiction situation, and she needed to know about reasons for optimism.

I thought about what she said for a few moments. Then I told her the only positive thing I saw was more money being released for desperately needed treatment.

Now, even this one positive aspect feels very uncertain.

 

 

Medical Board Action Against Telemedicine Buprenorphine Physician

Telemedicine

 

 

 

Telemedicine is all the rage these days. For medically underserved areas, telemedicine could help reduce physician shortages and provide care to people without medical specialists in their area.

As appealing as the idea may be, physicians must be careful to conform to their states’ medical board regulations.

Of course, buprenorphine can now be prescribed in the office setting to treat opioid use disorders. Even with the increased prescribing capacity DATA 2000 gave us, less than a quarter of people who need treatment for opioid use disorder receive it. In fact, modifications to DATA 2000, passed last year, allow buprenorphine prescribers to have up to 275 patients at a time, if they fulfil various criteria. Also, physician extenders can now get certification to prescribe buprenorphine after taking proper training.

But what about telemedicine? Can it be used to meet the demand for opioid use disorder treatment in underserved areas? We now have clearer guidance, thanks to a recent ruling by the NC Medical Board.

Here’s the condensed story:

A physician, who lived and practiced in the middle of the state, also prescribed Suboxone via telemedicine for patients in the Western part of the state. The medical board was displeased this physician didn’t examine his patients in this second location in person, prior to initiating the Suboxone. The physician stated he felt buprenorphine could be prescribed safely without an in-person exam, but the board didn’t agree.

The medical board faulted the physician for not giving adequate attention to patients’ use of other drugs, and their mental health history. The board said patients were not examined for track marks or withdrawal signs, and that the physician accelerated their doses too quickly. Patients were seen every four weeks from the start, and the medical board opined that was not frequent enough in early treatment.

In other words, there were clearly other issues besides the lack of initial face-to-face contact, but this lack was cited as a departure from the standard of care.

I’ve been contacted by at least a half dozen mental health agencies who wanted to hire me to start treating patients with opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, using telemedicine. I’ve turned them all down, mainly because it wasn’t good medical care, and also because I didn’t want to do anything to violate medical board’s telemedicine policy. They have had published guidelines surrounding telemedicine since 2010, and update it periodically. You can read it here: http://www.ncmedboard.org/resources-information/professional-resources/laws-rules-position-statements/position-statements/telemedicine

You will note that the policy says “This evaluation need not be in-person if the licensee employs technology sufficient to accurately diagnose and treat the patient…”

So it is a little confusing, in view of their recent ruling against a doctor prescribing buprenorphine.

In September of 2016, another Addiction Medicine physician got a public letter of concern from the NC Medical Board, for using the telephone to stay in contact with a patient who had moved out of state. I only know the circumstances of the case from what the medical board listed in their public letter of concern, but I do know the physician. He is well-trained, cautious, and has excellent judgment.

His patient of over three years moved out of state and couldn’t find a new buprenorphine prescriber. So his NC doctor agreed to continue to prescribe for him, and did phone sessions with this patient every two weeks for thirty minutes at a time. He issued buprenorphine prescriptions for only two weeks at a time. This happened over several years without a face-to-face visit. Apparently the physician enlisted the aid of a local pharmacist to do medication counts, and the medical board opined this was “insufficient.”

Wow. This ruling should give every physician a reason to avoid telemedicine. Because I think that doctor did a good thing. Every patient should have such a doctor, willing to go the extra mile to help. I don’t think the physician’s actions were “insufficient” in any regard, though I’ll admit I’m probably not what our NC medical board considers an expert.

I’ve used pharmacists to do pill counts for me if the patient says he is out of town when called for a pill count. Sounds like I’m going to have to stop doing that, given the medical board’s statement.

At least once at an opioid treatment program, I was pressured to admit patients using telemedicine.

Several years ago, I had surgery for a broken leg. At the time, I worked for two opioid treatment programs. One was located an hour away, and the other was two hours away. Driving was going to be cumbersome, of course.

As soon as I was able, I called the program managers of each to let them know I might be out of work for the next week or two. At the first OTP, the program manager said I should take all the time I needed, and intakes could be postponed. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, since we want to admit patients as soon as possible, but this was one of those things that were out of our control. I was still available by phone, of course.

At the second, the program manager said being out of work for several weeks was “not acceptable.” The program manager pushed me to admit patients via Skype or other technology. I refused, citing quality of care issues. In retrospect, I made the right decision.

I hear about “Doctor on Demand,” advertised by Dr. Phil on his show, and I wonder how these doctors get around this telemedicine issue. These doctors aren’t examining patients face to face on the first visit. Also, to practice medicine in NC, you must have a NC license, and surely all these doctors don’t have NC licenses.

I sent an email to Doctor on Demand asking about these issues. They sent me an email back, saying someone would be in contact with me. This was about four weeks ago and I haven’t heard anything else. I’ll let you know what they say in the unlikely event that they do contact me.

In the meantime, I think all physicians, and specifically buprenorphine prescribers, need to be very careful with telemedicine. Given these two recent rulings by the NC Medical Board, we could be cited for improper medical practice. Telemedicine seems like it could be a wonderful way to get care to people with opioid use disorders who live in remote places, but physicians need to protect their medical licenses first, or we won’t be able to prescribe anything to anybody.

 

 

Judges Behaving Badly

aaaaaaaaaaaaStepping Stone memo from Judge Ginn (2)

 

Methadone and buprenorphine treatment for opioid use disorders saves lives. Over five decades, we’ve accumulated more studies to support this treatment than any other medication, device, or intervention that I can think of. And yet, opioid use disorder appears to be the only disease where medically untrained people dictate medical treatment. The above memo from a judge of the 24th District Court in North Carolina illustrates this all too well.

Let’s change that sentence in the middle of Judge Ginn’s memo: “Therefore, effective immediately, the use of insulin as a treatment for diabetes will no longer be allowed as a part of any probationary sentence in the 24th Judicial District.”

It wouldn’t make any sense, would it? People would wonder why a judge was involved in a patient’s medical care. They might even be tempted to believe a judge had no authority to dictate medical care.

I worked in Boone, North Carolina, when this memo was issued, and it caused a great deal of suffering for patients. These patients, contrary to the judge’s beliefs, were doing well on medication-assisted treatments. They were no longer injecting drugs or committing crimes to support their active addiction. Their involvement with criminal justice system almost always pre-dated their entry into treatment. Yet the judge proclaimed they must stop the very medications that were helping them become productive members of society again!

I wrote letters of advocacy and information, citing studies that support MAT. I encouraged patients, and told them to expect their lawyer to advocate for them on this issue. The patients said their lawyers often advised them just to do what would make the judge happy. Patients, understandably, were timid about pushing against a judge with so much power over their lives.

Ironically, many of the people Judge Ginn thought were doing well in his court were also our patients. It was widely known that probation officers’ drug tests didn’t detect methadone or buprenorphine at that time. Unless the offender told the truth about being in treatment on buprenorphine or methadone, the court never knew. I’d estimate that dozens of people successfully passed through Judge Ginn’s court while being treated with buprenorphine or methadone, without him ever knowing about it, due to inadequate drug testing. The people who told the truth were penalized by being told to quit life-saving medication.

I know Judge Ginn is now retired, but I suspect attitudes and beliefs of the judiciary in that area haven’t changed much.

One of the opioid treatment programs in the area tried to advocate for their patients, by seeking some sort of censure against Judge Ginn, but I don’t know what came from that.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) both strongly recommend expanding opioid addiction treatment with medications to criminal justice participants. Congress just passed a bill that recommends spending money to treat opioid addiction in jails and prisons That bill pushes for people with opioid use disorder to get treatment instead of jail sentences. Experts everywhere advocate for expanding medication-assisted treatments to patients involved with the legal system, whether in jail, on parole, or on probation.

All of these actions are great. But Judge Ginn is an example of the many obstacles to implementation of the evidence-based treatments that experts recommend. Particularly in rural Appalachian areas, people in positions of power actively thwart life-saving medical treatments.

I don’t understand how judges can get away with such irresponsible actions. To me, it appears Judge Ginn practiced medicine without a license. If I somehow lost my medical license but continued to practice, I’d be committing a felony.

What if Judge Ginn commanded a patient stop buprenorphine or methadone, and the patient died in a relapse? Would Judge Ginn have any liability, civil or criminal?

I don’t know what can be done about judges like him, but don’t they have to answer to someone? Are they appointed, or elected? If elected, perhaps we need to start understanding judges’ positions on medical treatments before we vote for them.