Archive for the ‘Governmental solutions to addiction’ Category

Reproductive Health of Women in North Carolina’s Opioid Treatment Programs

 

 

 

 

 

The November/December issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, (Volume 13, Number 6), published a great article based on a 2017 survey of opioid treatment programs in North Carolina. This study was done by the University of Chapel Hill, and the article was titled, “Provision of and Barriers to Integrating Reproductive and Sexual Health Services for Reproductive-age Women in Opioid Treatment Programs.”

Of course, since this data is from my state of North Carolina, I read it with extra interest.

The article reminds us of what we know about women with opioid use disorders: they are more vulnerable to reproductive health issues. These women tend to have more pregnancies, with about 54% having four or more lifetime pregnancies, compared to 14% of women without opioid use disorder having four or more lifetime pregnancies. About 85% of the pregnancies of women with opioid use disorder are unintended, compared to around 45% for women without opioid use disorder. Women with opioid use disorders are less likely to use contraception and about five times more likely to have had an abortion.

Opioid use disorder increases the risk of gender-based violence and increases the risk of infections, for Hepatitis C and B, HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases. Adverse childhood events, termed ACEs, include stressful or traumatic life events, and are associated with reproductive health problems. Women with ACE history are much more likely to develop substance use disorders in general, including opioid use disorder, so a large portion of women enrolled in treatment at OTPs have this additional mental health burden affecting reproductive health.

Since medication is recommended for all patients with opioid use disorder, the authors of the article say pregnant and nonpregnant women with opioid use disorders could get care for reproductive health services within the opioid treatment program. They suggest this would be a way to reduce unwanted pregnancies, opioid-exposed pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and improve the overall health of women in these treatment programs.

The article described a survey sent to the medical directors and program directors of all forty-eight opioid treatment programs in the state, in order to assess the extent of reproductive health services offered to reproductive-age women enrolled in NC OTPs, as well as to explore perceived barriers to integrating such services into the care provided at OTPs.

Of the forty-eight OTPs surveyed, thirty-eight completed the survey. Of the programs that responded, 37% were private nonprofit organizations and 63% were private for-profit organizations. Thirty-four percent were in rural counties, 29% located in urban areas and 37% in suburban areas.

Only 21% of the responding OTPs offered female-specific programs.

Most OTPs accepted Medicaid, at 68%, and those programs served more women of reproductive age than did the non-Medicaid programs, which makes sense. The average length of treatment was longer for women in Medicaid program compared to non-Medicaid programs.

Twenty-one percent of OTPs offered non-prescription contraception, while only one program offered prescription contraception.

Only 89% of OTPs did on-site pregnancy tests, meaning 11% are not performing this simple and necessary test for patients.

To summarize this study, the OTPs of NC aren’t doing all they could to address female patient’s reproductive and sexual health issues.

I agree with this finding, and yet, I was a bit offended with the accompanying commentary in this issue of Journal of Addiction Medicine. Dr. Tricia Wright says that OTPs believe it’s outside the scope of their service to provide reproductive and sexual health services, and that this view is “dangerous and wrong.” She says such care is basic care and OTPs can and should do better for their female patients.

Now you’ve stepped on my toes and I’m going to have to step back.

I agree that more services should be provided, including female sexual and reproductive health. After all, as the article’s authors concluded, such efforts have the potential for great good. Increasing reproductive health of our female patients promotes health of children and families, and ultimately, society.

However, as this survey or providers discusses, there are obstacles to providing such services.

First, OTPs care for people with other equally important challenges. Our patients struggle with homelessness, lack of food, serious mental and physical health issues, all of which need addressed. Our resources are limited, both of time and money.

For example, a new patient injecting heroin might be homeless, with no way to afford food, and have serious mental health issues. Such a sick patient needs inpatient care which usually is not available. For example, our state-run program refused to admit a homeless diabetic because her blood sugars weren’t under control. They refused to admit an HIV positive patient because she wasn’t on proper medication for her HIV. Of course, with substance use disorders raging out of control, those goals weren’t realistic.

Our OTP takes care of many such challenging patients as best we can, because usually it’s their only option for care. Ultimately, we do hope to get them care for their other issues, in the form of referrals, because we don’t have the time or personnel to provide those services.

Second, OTPs may not have personnel with the expertise to manage reproductive health needs

I am trained in Internal Medicine. This means I could manage some simple primary care and even some uncomplicated gynecologic and mental health care for OTP patients. But my time is spent providing medication-assisted treatment to those patients. I would have to work additional hours if we provided primary care, probably at least double the hours that I now work. I would need a way to care for those patients for after-hours emergencies. I don’t work for free, and neither do the nurses. The company I work for would have to pay for this expense. They could bill Medicaid, but at least half our patients don’t have any insurance at all. Most uninsured patients get their OTP treatment paid for with grant money, but that doesn’t cover primary care services.

Many OTPs have a psychiatrist as a medical director. They could address mental health needs, but probably wouldn’t be comfortable doing and primary care, and certainly not reproductive health.

In order to meet even some of the reproductive and sexual health needs of just the female patients (ignoring male patients completely for some reason), additional providers would have to be hired. Who pays for that?

It makes more sense to me to have providers come to our OTP to provide essential services under one roof. One day could be for obstetric/gynecologic care. A local OB could come to our facility and see patients all day. Another day could be for a psychiatrist to come and treat patients, and maybe two days for primary care providers to see our OTP patients. It’s an ideal solution, except for finding willing providers, and a way to pay them.

Don’t even get me started on our patients’ dental care needs. We could hire a full-time dentist and keep her busy with only our opioid treatment program patients. But again, who would pay?

I get weary of unfunded mandates and recommendations for opioid treatment programs. I feel like much is expected of providers at opioid treatment programs, mainly because no other providers want to treat these patients.

Our patients often get superficial and substandard treatment from the local emergency department and local providers’ offices due to the stigma against people with substance use disorders in general. Part of this could be because some of our patients offend providers with their desperation and neediness. Patients enrolled at “that methadone clinic” face extra judgment from some providers, making it more difficult for our patients to access appropriate medical treatment.

It’s not feasible for OTPs to provide all the services that patients need, and certainly not fair to expect OTPs to provide this care for free because other providers don’t want to deal with our patients.

OTPs have and will pick up what pieces we can, but maybe it’s not fair to ask OTP providers to fix a broken healthcare system.

STOP Writing Paper Buprenorphine Prescriptions in North Carolina

 

 

 

 

 

The North Carolina STOP Act of June 2017 says that all Schedule 2 or 3 opioid medications must be prescribed electronically as of January 1, 2020. I blogged about this before, on September 8th of 2019, but I wasn’t sure buprenorphine was included.

Now I’m sure that it is included. I communicated with the NC Attorney General’s office and was assured all buprenorphine products are on the list of opioids which must be electronically prescribed.

Most providers probably already have e-prescribing. But in the OBOT (office-based opioid treatment) world, there are many small practices who may not yet have switched to E-prescribing. It is imperative that you do so by January 1, 2020.

According to the medical board’s website, it doesn’t matter if you only plan to write a few opioid prescriptions per year. The quantity prescribed doesn’t exempt you for the e-prescribing mandate.

I’m a little worried about the opioid treatment programs that also have some office-based patients for whom they prescribe. Most OTPs have electronic medical records, but these aren’t set up to communicate with local pharmacies. I don’t know what kind of solution will be found for these patients and their physicians, but I imagine each facility will need to purchase e-prescribing capabilities…and they will need to do it quickly, given the deadline looming one month away. Hopefully these programs already have provisions to comply with the new law.

What will happen if you ignore the new law and continue to issue paper prescriptions? Per the NC medical board website, it’s initially up to the pharmacy. They can choose to fill a paper prescription, or they may call the prescriber to make sure he/she knows about the new law. With repeated paper prescriptions, pharmacies can report these prescribers to the medical board for investigation. The medical board’s website says it will “…determine an appropriate resolution based on the individual circumstances of each case.”

Like all prescribers, I prefer not to come to the attention of our medical board as a provider who is violating the law. I don’t plan to put myself in the position to find out what “appropriate resolution” means. I encourage other buprenorphine prescribers to comply with the STOP Act, so they won’t have to worry about it either.

E-prescribing is relatively easy to learn. If I was able to use it after a few hours of instruction, anyone can learn it, because I’m naturally slow to grasp technical or electronic learning challenges. The program I purchased for my office doesn’t cost much, only about $30 to $50 per month for a program that meets DEA security standards.

Here’s a link to the DEA’s website with answers to questions about E-prescribing systems in general: https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/ecomm/e_rx/faq/practitioners.htm#transmitting

Here’s a link to the NC medical board’s FAQ page about E-prescribing compliance with the STOP Act: https://www.ncmedboard.org/landing-page/stop-act

I’m happy with my E-prescribing system. It still takes me a minute or two longer to complete than paper prescriptions, but there’s better security, which makes me feel better.

Embracing Change

My cat knows computer

 

 

 

Kicking, screaming, and whining, I entered the 21st century today.

Thanks to my long-suffering fiancé, we started electronic prescribing in my office. It went better than I feared.

A few years ago, North Carolina passed the STOP Act, which contained measures to help make the prescribing of opioids safer. One of the Act’s provisions was that by January 1, 2020, all targeted controlled substances must be prescribed electronically. The targeted substances are all Schedule II and III opioid prescriptions.

Here’s a weird thing, though: when I went back to read the text of the actual STOP Act, buprenorphine wasn’t listed as one of the targeted substances, even though it is a Schedule III opioid. But I’m erring on the side of caution. Besides, E-prescribing is a good idea. Paper prescriptions are becoming a thing of the past anyway, to my dismay.

I struggle with technology. Readers of this blog have no idea how annoyed I feel when my posts come out weird, with extra spaces and unintended placement of pictures. I’ve sworn at my laptop many times and only self-interest keeps me from hurling it against a wall. I know it’s me, accidently making unintended changes, then struggling to change back. Sometimes I must edit four or five times before it’s satisfactory. And this is on WordPress, one of the most user-friendly blog platforms around. I’m better at it now, after nine-plus years of blogging.

My fiancé did all the research for the E-prescribing software and vetted the available vendors. We set it up last week, with some difficulty.

At one point my sweetie said something that sounded to me like, “Now we need to get the verification code to authorize the pending password credentialing security code of the product.”

I looked at him, confused as my dog when I explain why our walk must be postponed until after I get home from work. “Eh…I thought we already did that step? I’m not sure what you mean.”

Patiently, he showed me on my computer.

“Oh. Now it’s asking for a password, but the one I chose isn’t working.”

“Yes but you must have used your login password and what it’s asking for there is the second tier pending security question and related password that you set up back under step sixty-three of the verification process. Do you remember what it was?”

“No. Maybe I used the dog’s name again?”

“Please don’t use the dog’s name anymore. That’s too easy to hack. So is your date of birth.”

“Oh. I know! I could use my social security number as my password!”

For some reason, Greg did a facepalm and shook his head slowly.

“OK. I’ll invent a new one. But it’s very hard to remember all of these. You know I have passwords for Methasoft, the prescription monitoring program, the ASAM website, the ABAM website, work email, home email, the OTP exception website, login at work, Ebay, the bank, Paypal, Amazon, ETSY…. “

“I thought I showed you how to store them in your Identity Safe.”

“Yes but I forgot the password to it, so…”

Another facepalm from Greg.

Eventually we had the software set up, though I was a little suspicious if we had done it correctly.

The next day, yesterday, was a relatively light day in my office. We used the system for six or seven of the patients, and it went relatively well. I got hung up only at the end, when I have to access a randomly generated code to type in within sixty seconds to match the system’s code that I request at the time I want to submit.

(If you don’t understand what I just wrote, don’t feel badly – I don’t either.)

I asked Greg to call the pharmacy after the first one we did, just to confirm all went well and the prescription was submitted. He called, and it was.

I felt euphoric. I did it, with some help. OK a lot of help.

Who knows what electronic field I may conquer next…maybe I’ll be able to stop losing emails.

 

 

The Sacklers: Rich People Problems and a Possible Solution

Heroin Spoon sculpture left outside Purdue Pharma

 

 

The Sackler family is having rich- people problems. No, let me correct that: they are having ultra-rich -people problems. They can’t find museums to accept their financial donations.

This family made its fortune, estimated into the billions, by making and promoting sales of OxyContin, the drug that started the opioid epidemic in North American.

I know some readers will quibble about that statement and tell me there are other reasons for our opioid epidemic. I know there were other factors: an FDA that was perhaps too cozy with drug companies, a nationwide push to do a better job of treating pain, so-called pain experts who used shaky data to support their safety claims for long-term opioid prescribing, and few prescription monitoring programs that could identify patients who were developing opioid use disorders by doctor-shopping. These were factors. But the opioid firepower in OxyContin tablets, easily available by removing a coating, fueled our opioid epidemic for more than ten years.

In April 2019, the New York Times ran an article about the Sackler family, their wealth, and their legal problems. [1]

Purdue Pharma, the drug company owned by the Sacklers, has been sued by various entities claiming OxyContin caused harm. As I’ve written about in previous blog posts, Virginia won a $600 million award against the drug company and its three top executives in 2007, after the company and executives pled guilty to criminal charges of misbranding. It’s a big verdict, but perhaps not so big, given the wealth of the Sackler family, estimated by Forbes to be about $13 billion.

In the past, the Sackler family distanced itself from the problems of their pharmaceutical company. Now, individual family members are being sued for their part in pushing OxyContin inappropriately. New York, Massachusetts, Utah, Connecticut and Rhode Island have all filed suits against members of the Sackler family. The New York Times says more than 500 cities, counties, and tribes have coalesced to sue members of the Sackler family.

These agencies claim some of the Sacklers are more involved in sales decisions that they would like the courts to believe. For example, according to the NYT, two years after the Virginia guilty plea, Mortimer Sackler, who was on Purdue Pharma’s board, wrote a memo inquiring why Purdue’s sales force wasn’t selling more opioids.

Either this man either didn’t understand his company’s guilty plea two years earlier, which is unlikely, given all he’s achieved in life, or he didn’t care. He wanted to make more money, at any cost.

The family, well-known for their philanthropy, has made big donations to various cultural and educational institutions. They’ve donated large sums to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they financed an entire wing: The Temple of Dendur. They’ve donated to the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim, and to colleges and universities.

Earlier this year, activists targeted several of these locations as protest sites, and asked museums to refuse money from the Sacklers, tainted as it is by association with the opioid epidemic. In February, protesters at the Guggenheim dropped paper slips made to resemble prescriptions from upper floors of that museum to protest acceptance of the Sackler’s money. Protesters also staged a “die-in” to represent the lives lost to opioid use disorder, and the Sackler family’s role in those deaths.

Last year, sculptor Domenic Esposito placed an 800-lb sculpture of a bent spoon containing heroin outside Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, to protest the Sackler’s role in the opioid epidemic. The spoon was confiscated by police and eventually returned to its creator.

Because of the political pressure from protesters, this summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided not to accept further money from the Sackler family, as did the Guggenheim and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Thus the ultra-rich problem of having no outlet to make charitable contributions.

The Sacklers defend their actions in manufacturing and promoting sales of OxyContin, saying they were mislead like everyone else into thinking that prescription opioid pain pills, when prescribed for pain, put patients at very low risk for developing opioid use disorder. They say they were taken in with the bad science of the age like other health agencies, and that it’s not fair to blame them for the opioid epidemic.

I find the Sackler’s proclamations of ignorance to be implausible, for several reasons. I can remember attending a course called “Pain and Addiction: Common Threads,” around 2004. At that course, a physician associated with Purdue Pharma chided physicians in the meeting who were trying to tell the presenters about how easy it was to inject or snort OxyContin. My memory may be inaccurate, but I know those meetings were recorded. I think I once possessed cassette tapes of a 2003 meeting, made by a company working for the American Society of Addiction Medicine. I surely wish I hadn’t discarded these old tapes; it would make for some interesting listening, given all that has happened since.

In Barry Meier’s prescient book, “Pain Killer,” he described how small-town physician Dr. Art Van Zee tried very hard to tell Purdue Pharma representatives about the devastation he was seeing and treating in opioid-addicted patients. Meier’s book was published in 2005, so Dr. Van Zee’s efforts had to be taking place around 2003.

In 2003, a Purdue Pharma representative testified before Congress that the company knew people were misusing their medication, and that they were re-formulating their medication to make it more abuse-resistant. But Purdue Pharma didn’t make that change until 2010, seven years of profit later.

Richard Sackler, once Purdue Pharma’s CEO, called people who misused OxyContin “scum of the earth,” “criminals,” and “victimizers,” in an article in the New York Daily News published in May of this year. Sackler has since said he made those uninformed statements decades ago, and that he understands more about opioid use disorder now and recognizes his lack of sensitivity to people suffering with opioid use disorder. [2]

This evidence indicates Purdue Pharma knew about the problem of misuse. The Sackler’s claim they had no knowledge of the death and destruction associated with their medication just isn’t credible. If the Sackler family didn’t know about the destruction their medication was causing, they’d have to be stupid or living under a rock. You don’t get to be billionaires by being stupid.

However, the Sacklers may be politically tone-deaf. In one of the biggest shows of chutzpah in the world, Purdue Pharma at one point considered getting into the opioid use disorder treatment market by manufacturing buprenorphine products to sell.

Yes, that’s right. In a full circle of greed, Richard Sackler got a patent in 2018 for a new form of buprenorphine in a wafer form. Since it dissolves in only a few seconds, it claims an advantage over tablet and film forms of the product now on the market.

This incredible development leads to the point of this blog: I have a solution for the unfortunate Sacklers, who have a bunch of money they want to give away but can’t. They say they want to help fix this opioid epidemic, and they now have a patented form of the product.

I say let the Sacklers, through Purdue Pharma, manufacture buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder and provide it free of charge to any patient who needs treatment. All the patient would have to do is see a physician, who prescribes Purdue’s buprenorphine product. The patient takes this prescription to any pharmacy to receive free treatment medication. Purdue could pay the small pharmacy fee for stocking and dispensing the medication. More patients could access treatment this way.

Everyone wins with my idea. The Sacklers get to give away money in a method that provides direct amends to the very patients they have harmed. Physicians no longer have to agonize over which form of buprenorphine to prescribe so that the patient can afford it. Patients get treatment that saves lives.

My idea has the advantage of removing middle-men. If Purdue Pharma and/or the Sackler family are found guilty in future lawsuits, they could pay their fine in the form of free treatment medication. This method avoids pitfalls with money gathered from civil fines that must be filtered through layers of government. Sometimes such money gets spent well, and sometimes not. With my method, it all goes to benefit the patients.

I love my idea, both for its practicality and for its poetic justice.

What do you think?

 

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/01/health/sacklers-oxycontin-lawsuits.html
  2. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-news-richard-sackler-opioid-addicts-scum-criminals-emails-20190507-ujfmvpphqjc77icemxafbjhlai-story.html

Criminally Pregnant, Again: Tennessee’s Fetal Assault Law Won’t Die

 

 

Tennessee lawmakers are trying to revive a version of the Fetal Assault Law, originally passed in 2014 but allowed to sunset in 2016, after the state saw worsening outcomes for pregnant moms and babies. [1, 2]

I wrote two blog entries when this law was first passed – you can read “Criminally Pregnant in Tennessee” Parts 1 and 2 from April 12, 2014 and April 26, 2014. The second blog entry was supposed to be satirical. (I won’t try that again, after two out of six commenters thought I was being serious about putting the “addicted babies” in jail.)

This is the proposed law, in part: Notwithstanding subdivision (c)(1), nothing in this section shall preclude prosecution of a woman for assault under §39-13-101 based on the woman’s illegal use of a narcotic drug, as defined in Section 39-17-402, while pregnant, if the woman’s child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug and the addiction or harm is a result of the woman’s illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant,”

To summarize, the Fetal Assault Law says that a pregnant woman can be criminally charged if her baby is born addicted to or harmed by an illegal drug used by the woman.

The wording of the bill is scientifically wrong, of course. Babies can’t be born addicted, since addiction is diagnosed only in the presence of obsession and compulsion to use the drug despite adverse consequences. Babies don’t have obsessions or compulsions, and even if they did, we wouldn’t know it. But I know what lawmakers meant. The lawmakers likely meant to say, “physically dependent,” but lack knowledge about substance use disorder science to know the proper terms.

These types of laws are nothing new. We know the problems that occur with these laws, and Tennessee should learn from examples from the past – their own recent past.

Amnesty International released a 69-page report in 2017, titled “Criminalizing Pregnancy: Policing Pregnant Women Who Use Drugs in the U.S.” This report summarizes research about laws that criminalize behaviors during pregnancy and give some overall data, but the report focused on two states: Tennessee and Alabama.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr51/6203/2017/en/

It’s an interesting report, and worth a read. I wish Tennessee lawmakers would read it, because they would have more information about what happened during the two years the Fetal Assault Law was enacted in the years 2014 – 2016.

According to the Amnesty International report, here are the biggest problems seen under the law:

Deterrence of prenatal care: Predictably, pregnant women are less likely to seek prenatal care if they are using drugs and fear being arrested. Even the women who did seek prenatal care were sometimes drug tested without their consent and even without their knowledge.

Uneven application of the law: Some areas of Tennessee had far more cases charged than others, because of the decisions of the local prosecutors. A total of around one hundred women were charged under the Fetal Assault Law, mostly in the eastern part of the state, where there are few treatment facilities available for pregnant women, and in Memphis, in the far western part of the state.

Also, nearly all the women charged in Tennessee were either poor, minorities, or both. The county with the highest number of women charged under the Fetal Assault Law (Shelby County, where Memphis is located), was also ironically a county with lower rates of drug-exposed newborns than other parts of the state. However, that county’s residents are predominantly African-American. It looks as if the prosecutor in that county was more zealous about charging women under the Fetal Assault Law.

Adding to the problem, drug testing policy during pregnancy isn’t uniform. Poor and minority women are more likely to be drug tested, with one study showing that black women were 1.5 times more likely to be tested than non-black women, despite drug use rates that are approximately equal between races. Black women testing positive were ten times more likely to be reported to authorities than non-black women. (Kinins et al., 2007, Chasnoff et al., 1990)

Lack of availability of treatment: Ironically, more women were charged under the Fetal Assault Law in areas with fewer available treatment options. Even when pregnant women with substance use disorders desired treatment, there were few options. Only 19 of Tennessee’s 177 treatment centers open during 2014-2016 treated pregnant women. At the time this law was active, there were no opioid treatment programs in Eastern Tennessee. Even in parts of the state that had opioid treatment programs, the state-funded TennCare program doesn’t pay for methadone treatment during pregnancy, which is the standard of care as noted by experts in the Addiction Medicine field.

The Amnesty International report tells of one woman in Tennessee who tried for three months to access treatment but was turned down repeatedly. She was charged under the Fetal Assault Law.

According to calculations, even if all available treatment beds were set aside for pregnant women with substance use disorders, those resources wouldn’t cover even half of the existing need.

I hope Tennessee doesn’t go backward and re-enact this Fetal Assault law. Since substance use disorders are illnesses, it makes more sense for these women to get treatment, not jail time.

After all, that’s how we treat alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking during pregnancy. We have far more data about harm done to the fetus from maternal smoking and drinking alcohol. But because these substances are legal, they are dealt with as a public health issue. Obesity also affects the outcome of pregnancies. In one article, the dangers of maternal obesity were outlined, and the authors concluded, “Even modest increases in maternal BMI were associated with increased risk of fetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal, perinatal, and infant death.” [3]

I doubt lawmakers would be comfortable setting laws around how much weight a pregnant woman can gain. But if their main concern is fetal well-being, and if they think criminalizing behavior is a way to fix problems, who knows? Maybe next year Tennessee will be patrolling obstetricians’ office for obese pregnant ladies.

  1. http://www.wmcactionnews5.com/2019/02/12/tennessee-bill-revive-fetal-assault-law-would-prosecute-women-who-use-drugs-during-pregnancy/
  2. https://www.npr.org/2016/03/23/471622159/tennessee-lawmakers-discontinue-controversial-fetal-assault-law
  3. Aune, et al, “Maternal Body Mass Index and the Risk of Fetal Death, Stillbirth, and Infant Death: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA, 2014; 311(15):1536-1546.

Advice for New Prescribers

 

 

 

The medical care providers of this nation are being encouraged get training necessary to prescribe buprenorphine products (brand names Suboxone, Zubsolv, Bunavail, Sublocade, and the generics) for the treatment of opioid use disorder in their patients. We need more good prescribers, because even after twenty years into this opioid situation, only about twenty percent of patients who need treatment can get it.

I’ve written on this topic a few times in the past, but this blog entry will contain some advice directed to new prescribers of buprenorphine products. Hopefully it will help them have good experiences prescribing medication-assisted treatment.

Here are some ideas that work for me at my office:

Treat the patient with opioid use disorder with the same attitude and compassion that you would for any other patient with a potentially fatal chronic illness. If you can’t do that, then don’t treat patients with substance use disorders. Patients detect negative attitudes such as distain and dislike even when those attitudes are communicated non-verbally. For whatever reason, if you can’t put judgment aside, then work on your own issues before you attempt to treat suffering people trying to get well.

Patients will resent a physician with a bad attitude. That will contaminate the relationship with predictable results.

For example, I talked to one physician who had his waiver to prescribe buprenorphine from an office setting. I asked him why he wasn’t using his waiver to treat patients, since there were so many in our community that needed help.

He told me the visits with the first two patients went poorly. He said both these patients threatened his life and the lives of his family members. After that, he decided not to risk treating anyone with opioid use disorder.

I was shocked. I’ve never, in the thirteen years I’ve been prescribing from an office practice, had any patient threaten my life, though I’ve made some angry at me. I had to wonder what kind of bedside manner this doctor had, for his first two patients to want to kill him. That sounds like I’m blaming the doctor, and maybe I am, but his experience was so contrary to my own that I had to wonder what was going on. I suspect his patients didn’t feel respected by him.

I’ve had one patient threaten me with bodily harm, but that was at an opioid treatment program in Gastonia, NC, more than a decade ago. The patient was an avowed KKK member, tall and large, with tattoos of hate groups on his muscular arms. I might have been worried, except at the time he threatened me, he was so impaired on benzos that I could have pushed him over with a finger. I’d just told him he couldn’t dose with methadone that day, due to impairment. The next week, he greeted when we passed in the hall. I assume he had been in a blackout from his benzodiazepine ingestion the week before and didn’t remember our previous interaction.

Be clear with your patients about your expectations. At the first visit, I sit with the patient and go over a patient agreement form. I adapted it from a SAMHSA website where you can find helpful forms, tools, and ideas.

https://pcssnow.org/resources/clinical-tools/

https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/training-resources/publications

In that agreement, I outline my expectations. I have paragraphs indicating that disruptive or violent behavior won’t be tolerated and are grounds for immediate dismissal from my practice. In thirteen years, I’ve never had one patient become rowdy or disruptive. Having said that, I do realize other prescribers have had different experiences.

I ask patients to keep and be on time for appointments, and if they don’t show up and don’t call, they will be charged for the missed visit. I tell patients I won’t call in prescriptions if they miss a visit. Having said that, I’m also flexible enough to know that things do come up – cars break down, traffic jams occur, etc. In the winter, travel can be treacherous, so that’s another factor to be dealt with. All I ask is that the patients communicate problems early so we can find a reasonable solution.

Patients who miss appointments, don’t call, and won’t answer our calls to find out what’s going on will have problems at my practice. It may or may not be their fault, but if it doesn’t work out they will need to find a new provider.

My agreement also says I won’t “fire” a patient before I talk to them face-to-face. Patients tell me they’ve been dismissed by a practice by letter, for some issue or another. I think that’s cowardly, and disrespectful to the patient. If there’s a reason I feel I can no longer to continue treatment as we are, I owe it to the patient to tell them exactly what the problem is. Sometimes we can find solutions short of termination and sometimes we can’t. At least the patient will know I respect them enough to talk to them, and they will know the basis of my decision. They will also get a referral to a new provider, or at least a recommendation.

Be careful with patient selection and try to match the patient with the best level of care.

Not every patient will do well in an office-based setting. For example, if a patient has been using buprenorphine products illicitly by insufflation or injection, that patient probably is best treated in an opioid treatment program, where observed dosing is done.

Most patients need to be on the combination products buprenorphine/naloxone. Adverse reactions do occur with the monoproduct, but they are rare, and drug diversion is not. If a new patient needs the monoproduct, I refer them to an opioid treatment program where they can be properly observed.

If that patient has been treated in another office-based setting with medical records that support their progress and compliance on the monoproduct, my recommendation would be different. Many factors influence my treatment decisions, so I need all the information I can get to make the best decisions.

This leads me to my next recommendation: get old records. Make the effort to get records from a previous practice. Sometimes patients, to curry favor with a new prescriber, will tell tales about how awful their last prescriber was. That may be true…or there may be more to the story, so get records to get a better idea of what happened at the last practice.

Don’t falsify your own records. It’s unethical and probably illegal to bill for services you document but don’t provide. To get higher insurance reimbursements, physicians sometimes chart long review of systems and/or physical exams than were performed. This is called “up-billing.” I suspect up-billing when I see records with four pages of single-spaced type for each visit, but then notice the same four pages for each monthly visit, with no changes.

I blogged before about a patient whose records recorded an exam saying “consistent with eight-month pregnancy” for every monthly visit for over a year. Yeah…kind of suspicious…using that cut-and-paste feature, I think.

If you do telemedicine, make sure you have some sort of medical personnel on site with the patient to look for physical finding you may miss with telecommunications. I just admitted a patient to our opioid treatment program who had been on Suboxone for six months from a provider he only saw online. This patient was injecting his medication, but his prescriber couldn’t see it. His most prominent tracks were on the side of his neck, which could be hidden with a high collar. Obviously, this could have ended in disaster had the patient not realized he needed a higher level of care.

Be careful about lab schemes. If a laboratory diagnostic service is charging patients $500 for one drug screen, it’s probably a scam. In past years, these organization popped up like mushrooms in manure, saying they could do extensive lab testing for all patients, but only charge those with insurance. Uninsured would get free testing.

As it turns out, some of those companies charged outrageous fees to the insurance companies, including Medicaid and Medicare, for expensive and unnecessary testing, in get-rich-quick schemes. Here’s a link to an article that explains how this works:

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/report-urine-based-drug-tests-helping-some-doctors-soak-profits

Good providers don’t want to sully their name by associating with shady laboratory service providers. Physicians can do good point-of-care testing on site for $10 or less. Sometimes patients need more extensive testing, and this can be decided on a case-by-case basis rather than testing every patient for dozens of drugs that aren’t commonly used in the community where you practice.

Be aware of what drugs are trending in your area and make sure they are included in your drug testing protocol. In the past, heroin was rare in rural areas, but that’s changed. As I’ve discussed on this blog, heroin frequently contains fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid that’s responsible for many overdose deaths.

Ask your new patients what drugs are being used in your community. They can be great sources of information, as can local addiction medicine educational conferences, and your local law enforcement officials.

Make friends with the medical director at your local opioid treatment program. Most physician medical directors at opioid treatment programs are happy to work collaboratively with office-based providers. We share patients all the time and need to do what’s best for the patient. We don’t need to look at each other as competitors, because there are more than enough patients for everyone, unfortunately. Let’s work together to get people into treatment, and to match the patient with the right level of care.

It can be a relief for an office-based provider to know they have a facility willing to deliver a higher level of care when necessary. Sometimes the patient may need inpatient treatment, but at other times it might be an opioid treatment program, where the patient may come daily for dosing and oversight.

Again, some patients, in an effort to curry favor with a new prescriber, may talk disparagingly about another treatment facility, so don’t take a patient’s word that an opioid treatment program does an awful job.

Decades ago in my previous life as a primary care physician, I learned that the new patient who tells me how wonderful I am compared to their last terrible doctor will soon be saying the same thing to another new doctor, about how terrible I am. I know there are terrible doctors, but there are also some patients that can’t be pleased no matter how good the physician.

Finally, get involved with organizations that can help you. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel; as I mentioned above, help is available from several sources.

Go to the SAMHSA website mentioned above and you will find helpful resources. Or you can go to the American Society of Addiction Medicine website for information: https://www.asam.org/  You may decide to go to one of their excellent conferences.

Go to the Providers’ Clinical Support System (PCSS) website and search their educational offerings at https://pcssnow.org/ They have archived webinars, mentoring programs, and other great things available.

If you work in North Carolina, there is the UNC ECHO program, which offers live teleconferences three days per week on issues surrounding medication-assisted treatment of patients in the office setting. You can hear cases presented and listen to input from experts and other prescribers, while getting free (yes I said free) CME hours. Once involved, you can present your own difficult cases to get help with difficult patient situations. You can go to their website at: https://echo.unc.edu/ or leave me a comment with your email and I can connect you to the organization.

It can be difficult to persuade new prescribers that treating patients with opioid use disorder is rewarding and fun. I became a physician because I wanted to help people, sappy as that sounds. I didn’t feel the sense of satisfaction during the decade I worked in primary care, for whatever reason, that I now feel working in the field of Addiction Medicine.

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.