Archive for the ‘Government Behaving Badly’ Category

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
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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.

Inmate Dies From Withdrawal, FBI will investigate

aaaaaaaaaades

An interesting article from this week’s issue of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly caught my eye today. On page 4 is the article, “Video of jail drug-withdrawal death leads to FBI inquiry.” This seized my attention, since I view the awful treatment of U.S. prisoners as one of our nation’s biggest moral failings. I get particularly agitated when patients enrolled in medication-assisted treatment for addiction are denied access to medical care.

This story is heart-wrenching.

In June of 2014, David Stojcevski , 32 years old, was jailed in the Macomb County, Michigan, jail for thirty days for failure to pay a traffic ticket. He was denied access to his usual medications; news sources said he was being prescribed methadone, Klonopin, and Xanax for the treatment of addiction. No mention was made of whether he was a patient of an opioid treatment program.

David died seventeen days into his thirty day sentence. His autopsy listed the cause of death as “Acute withdrawal from chronic benzodiazepine, methadone, and opiate medication,” and also mentioned seizures and dehydration as contributing factors.

A jail nurse, noting his medical condition upon intake to the jail, recommended he be sent to a medical detox unit, but her recommendations were not heeded. Instead, when Mr. Stojcevski began behaving in unusual ways, he was sent to a mental health cell, where he was monitored with video around the clock. He was supposed to have personnel checking on him every fifteen minutes. Apparently his withdrawal symptoms were so severe he declined meals and lost 50 pounds within these eleven days. He had what appear to be seizures as he lay on the jail floor dying.

Understandably, David’s family was livid. In order to illustrate the jail’s indifference to their son’s suffering, they posted all 240 hours of the video monitoring on the internet, where it went viral. David’s family is seeking to change the way prisoners on medications are treated, to avoid senseless deaths like David’s. They have also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and against Correct Care Solutions, the company which was supposed to have provided medical care to prisoners in the county jail.

I have often heard my patients describe the callous indifference jailers have toward them as they withdrawal from legally prescribed medication, but it’s quite another thing to actually watch this man die slowly. I only saw a few clips from the local news program above, and was horrified. It does not take any medical knowledge to see how this man was suffering. He became thinner, wasn’t eating, and didn’t get off the jail floor for the last two days of his life. At the very end, he has some agonal respirations, what looks to me like seizure activity, and then becomes still.

Then jail personnel crowd into his cell.

Too little, too late. He’s already dead and can’t be revived.

Some of the frames were televised on the area’s local news segment and can be seen here: http://www.clickondetroit.com/news/man-jailed-for-ticket-dies-in-custody/35452790
Be warned this segment is not for the faint of heart.

This man died from a treatable condition, opioid and benzodiazepine withdrawal.

An addiction expert interviewed by the area’s local television statement called the treatment of this man “unconscionable.”

I could quibble about the appropriateness of prescribing two benzodiazepines to a person with addiction in the first place, but since that’s not the point of this blog post, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Just yesterday, local TV news said the ACLU had filed a request for a formal Justice Department investigation of the Macomb County jail, saying prisoners are having their civil rights violated by the actions at the jail. The ACLU has also asked for an investigation into the judge’s decision to imprison David after he was unable to pay his traffic ticket, creating what was in essence a “debtor’s prison.”

A representative of the ACLU said anyone watching the video could deduce there was “Something systemically wrong at the Macomb County Jail.”

Recently, the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. contacted the FBI, asking them to investigate this case for evidence of criminal behavior on the part of Macomb County jail staff.

Macomb County officials steadfastly maintain they did nothing wrong, have nothing to hide, and welcome investigations into David Stojcevski’s death.

What I saw on this video clip appears criminal to me. The neglect, the reckless disregard for the wellbeing of another human is a far more serious crime than David’s traffic ticket. Every person who worked in that jail who turned a blind eye to the dying man belongs on the other side of the bars.

I am grateful to David’s family for their decision to post this painful video. That had to be a hard decision, but David’s graphic suffering causes more impact than written descriptions. I wonder if the ACLU, Justice Department, and FBI would have gotten involved had his family not publicized David’s gradual death, and had it not gone viral.

This behavior on the part of law enforcement is stupid, inhumane, and egregious. Do these law enforcement personnel have no shame, no basic human decency? Are we in a third world country where prisoners have no rights?

I will follow this story and give updates when possible.

I’d love to see the FBI investigate, and I hope criminal charges are filed. I hope the family sues and wins millions of dollars. I hope something can finally change in county jails across the nation, so that people who are incarcerated are no longer denied medical care.

A Letter to Law Enforcement About Medication-assisted Treatments

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Dear Officer Zealous:
First of all, thank you for patrolling our streets and highways and your efforts to keep them safe. I know you have a hard job and I deeply appreciate your willingness to take on this responsibility.

However, please stop arresting my patients for whom I’ve prescribed methadone and buprenorphine (better known under the brand names Suboxone, Subutex, or Zubsolv). You mistakenly think all people taking these medications have no right to be driving, and you are wrong. I’m writing this letter to give you better information that you can use to do your job better.

Our nation is in the middle of a crisis. Opioid addiction is an epidemic, and too often its sufferers die of overdoses. Medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine works very well to prevent overdose deaths, and it’s been proven to help patients have a better quality of life in recovery.

I doubt you’ve been provided any information about medication-assisted treatment, so I want to help you learn some facts. Methadone has been around for fifty years and has a proven track record. It’s been studied more than perhaps any other medication, and we know it does a great job of treating opioid addiction. Buprenorphine has only been available in the U.S. for about 13 years, but has been used in Europe for decades.

With both methadone and buprenorphine, the proper dose of medication should make the patients feel normal. Patients should not feel intoxicated or high, and should not feel withdrawal symptoms. Methadone and buprenorphine are both very long-acting opioids, and they both give the opioid addicts a fairly steady level of opioid, compared to short-acting opioids usually used for intoxication. Therefore, using methadone to treat opioid addiction is not “like giving whiskey to an alcoholic,” as has incorrectly been asserted. The valid difference lies in the unique pharmacology of methadone. Opioid addicts can lead normal lives on this medication, when it is properly dosed.

In addition, both of these medications block other opioids at the opioid receptor. When a patient is on an adequate dose, she won’t feel euphoria from another opioid. Both methadone and buprenorphine deter use of other opioids for the purpose of getting high.

Treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine is endorsed by the CSAT (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment) branch of SAMHSA, by the U.S.’s Institute of Medicine, by ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), by AAAP (American Association of Addiction Psychiatry), and by NIDA (National Institute of Drug Addiction. In study after study, methadone has been shown to reduce the risk of overdose death, reduce days spent in criminal activities, reduce transmission rates of HIV, reduce the use of illicit opioids, reduce the use of other illicit drugs, produce higher rates of employment, reduce commercial sex work, and reduce needle sharing. Medication-assisted therapy is also high cost effective.

Indeed, the current debate of government officials at the highest levels has been how best to expand medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine, not to make it less available. So please don’t do anything which may discourage opioid addicts from receiving life-saving treatment.

Over the years, many studies have been done on methadone and buprenorphine to see if patients are able to drive safely on either of them. In study after study, data show patients on stable doses of both medications can safely drive cars, operate heavy equipment, and perform complex tasks. Please see the list of references at the bottom of this letter if you wish to investigate for yourself.

I’m not saying, however, that patients on methadone or buprenorphine can’t become impaired. Impairment can occur if patients are given too high a dose of methadone or buprenorphine, which most often occurs during the first two weeks of treatment. For that reason, patients are warned not to drive if they ever feel sedated or drowsy.

Patients on medication-assisted treatment can also become impaired if they mix other drugs or medications with their methadone or buprenorphine. In fact, benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, Klonopin) and alcohol act synergistically with maintenance opioids. They can cause impairment with smaller amounts of alcohol or benzos than expected. And of course, patients can still become impaired with other drugs, such as marijuana.

As you probably know, a urine drug screen isn’t adequate to detect impairment. The urine screen only tells you if the person has taken a given drug or medication over the last few days to weeks. Drugs are detectable in the urine long after the impairing effect wears off, so you must demonstrate the presence of drugs with a blood test at the time of the questioned impairment.

My family and I drive these roads too, and I don’t want impaired drivers on our highways any more than anyone else. I just think you have mistakenly targeted patients on medication-assisted treatment for the disease of opioid addiction.

I know you have formed bad opinions about methadone and buprenorphine patients from seeing both drugs misused on the street. I hate that, because you probably rarely get to see more typical patients on medication-assisted treatments.

The vast majority of my patients have jobs, families, and responsibilities that they meet, despite having this potentially fatal illness of opioid addiction. If you are fortunate enough to encounter one of my patients on a random traffic stop, please don’t give them a hard time. Please congratulate them on having the courage to find recovery from addiction, and tell them to do what works for them. In some patients, that’s medication.

Thanks for reading this long letter and thanks for all you do in the name of keeping our roads safe. If you want to know more about how we treat opioid addiction at our facility, please call our program manager at xxx-xxx-xxxx and we would be happy to provide you with an after- hours tour and lots of information.
Sincerely,

Jana Burson M.D.
Member of the American Society of Addition Medicine
Board certified in Internal Medicine
Certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine

P.S. And please don’t attempt to intimidate patients from coming to get help for this fatal illness of opioid addiction by parking your squad car just outside our facility’s entrance. Some of these patients may have old warrants, but by stalking them where they come for help, you discourage people who want to escape addiction and want to better their lives. If you do park near us, you should expect a staff member to approach you with a smile, a cup of coffee, and a pile of information about opioid addiction and its treatment.

ATTACHMENT:

Methadone and Driving Article Abstracts
Brief Literature Review
Institute for Metropolitan Affairs
Roosevelt University 2/14/08

1. DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE
BABST, D., NEWMAN, S., & State, N. (1973). DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE. DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE,
When a comparison was made within specific age groups, it was learned that the accident and conviction rates were about the same for methadone maintenance clients as for a sample of New York City male drivers within the same period. The findings from other related studies discussed in this booklet are consistent with the results in this study.

2. The effects of the opioid pharmacotherapies methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine, alone and in combination with alcohol, on simulated driving.
Lenné, M., Dietze, P., Rumbold, G., Redman, J., & Triggs, T. (2003, December). Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 72(3), 271.
These findings suggest that typical community standards around driving safety should be applied to clients stabilized in methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine treatment.

3. Maintenance Therapy with Synthetic Opioids and Driving Aptitude.
Schindler, S., Ortner, R., Peternell, A., Eder, H., Opgenoorth, E., & Fischer, G. (2004). Maintenance Therapy with Synthetic Opioids and Driving Aptitude. European Addiction Research, 10(2), 80-87
Conclusion: The synthetic opioid-maintained subjects investigated in the current study did not differ significantly in comparison to healthy controls in the majority.

4. Methadone-substitution and driving ability
Forensic Science International, Volume 62, Issues 1-2, November 1993, Pages 63-66
H. Rössler, H. J. Battista, F. Deisenhammer, V. Günther, P. Pohl, L. Prokop and Y. Riemer
The formal assertion that addiction equals driving-inability, which is largely practiced at present, is inadmissible and therefore harmful to the therapeutic efforts for rehabilitation.

5. Methadone substitution and ability to drive. Results of an experimental study.
Dittert, S., Naber, D., & Soyka, M. (1999, May).
It is concluded that methadone substitution did not implicate driving inability.

6. Functional potential of the methadone-maintenance person.
Gordon, N., & Appel, P. (1995, January). Functional potential of the methadone-maintenance person. Alcohol, Drugs & Driving, 11(1), 31-37.
Surveys on employability and driving behavior of MTSs revealed no significant differences when compared to normal population. It is concluded that MM at appropriate dosage levels, as part of treatment for heroin addiction, has no adverse effects on an individual’s ability to function.