Archive for the ‘Governmental solutions to addiction’ Category

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.

 

 

Harm Reduction versus Abstinence Only

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I’ve heard the harm reduction versus abstinence -only debate about addiction treatment many times, not only at addiction medicine conferences, but also in my own head. In the past, I thought abstinence from all addictive drugs was the only true recovery from addiction. As I’ve aged, I’ve traveled far into the harm reduction camp, having seen people with addiction die from their disease when perhaps more could have been done to save them.

A wise mentor of mine once said try not to argue with people who aren’t actually in the room with you, so I’ve committed the debate to writing.

Following is an imaginary debate between two addiction treatment professionals. One professional believes harm reduction measures are worthwhile because they can keep drug users alive and healthier, even if they never completely stop using drugs. The other professional feels harm reduction cheats a drug user out of full and happy recovery, which she believes is seen with complete abstinence from all drugs.

First, they chat about needle exchange:

HR: I fully support needle exchange programs. They have been proven to reduce transmission of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis. Why wouldn’t we want to help people avoid getting these potentially devastating diseases?

AO: Because giving out needles sends the wrong message. It says we are OK with people injecting drugs, and that we are willing to make it easier for them to do so. Appearing to condone drug use in any way sends the wrong message to young adults, who may be considering using drugs for the first time. Stigma towards drug users can be harmful, but perhaps stigma serves a good purpose if it discourages people from doing dangerous things like injection drug use.

HR: Studies do not show needle exchange increases the likelihood that people will start using drug intravenously. Easily available clean needles are not enough to convince a person to start injecting drugs. Besides, even if you have little compassion for the drug user, for every case of HIV we prevent with needle exchange, we save our society countless dollars in medical care. That’s just one disease. When you consider the health burden and medical costs of transmission of hepatitis C, it’s even more reasonable.

Even the ultra-conservative Mike Pence, the former Governor of Indiana and our future Vice President, changed his mind on needle exchange after an outbreak of HIV occurred in a rural community among people injecting opioids.

Besides being morally right, needle exchange makes financial sense.

AO: No, it doesn’t. It sends a message to drug users that we’ve given up on them. It says we don’t think they will ever be able to live without injecting drugs. In a way, it infantilizes them. By making drug use easier, we may cheat them out of trying to become clean and sober.

AO and HR move to the topic of medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine:

HR: First of all, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is harm reduction only so far as all treatment should reduce harm. MAT is a good treatment in itself, and isn’t necessarily just a stop on the journey of recovery.

I fully support medication-assisted treatment. We have fifty years of studies that show people who are addicted to opioids are less likely to die if they enroll in methadone maintenance or buprenorphine maintenance. It is one of the most heavily evidence-based treatments in all of medicine, and it is endorsed by many professional agencies, such as the Institute for Medicine, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the World Health Organization, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

We have study after study showing how opioid addicted people have a better quality of life when on medication-assisted treatment with methadone. We have more information about methadone because it has been use in the U.S. much longer than buprenorphine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002, after the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 was passed.

Opioid-addicted people enrolled in methadone treatment are more likely to become employed, much less likely to commit crime, and more likely to have improved mental and physical health. They receive addiction counseling as part of the process of treatment.

We think buprenorphine has the same benefits, though there have been fewer studies than with methadone. We do know the risk of opioid overdose death is much lower when an opioid addicted person is treatment with buprenorphine, too.

Because medication-assisted treatment is so effective, it should be considered a primary treatment of opioid addiction, and not only a harm reduction strategy.

AO: With MAT, opioid-addicted people may be harmed more than if they continue in active addiction. It is no different from giving an alcoholic whiskey. Methadone is a heavy opioid that’s difficult to get off of. The opioid treatment programs that administer methadone don’t try to help these people to get off of methadone, because they make more money by keeping them in treatment. These patients are chained to methadone with liquid handcuffs forever. It’s also expensive over the long run, and patients have to agree to many restrictions put on them by state and federal governments.

HM: Methadone and buprenorphine treatments are not like giving an alcoholic whiskey, because the unique pharmacology of these medications. Both medications have a long half-life, and when patients are on a stable dose, they feel normal all day long without cravings for illicit opioids. This frees them from the unending search for drugs that occupies much of their days. Instead, they can concentrate on positive life goals.

Also, even after an opioid- addicted person stops using opioids and endures the acute withdrawal, he will usually feel post-acute withdrawal. This syndrome, often abbreviated PAWS, can cause fatigue, body aches, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It’s unpleasant. Many people in this situation crave opioids intensely. We think this occurs because that person’s body no longer makes the body’s own opioids, called endorphins.

Endorphins give us a sense of well-being, and without them, we don’t feel so good. When humans use opioids in any form, our bodies stop making endorphins. In some people, it takes a very long time for that function to return. In some cases, it may never return. We can’t yet measure endorphin levels in humans, so this is a just theory, but one borne out by years of observation and experience.

Methadone and buprenorphine are both very long-acting opioids. Instead of the cycle of euphoria and withdrawal seen with short-acting opioids, these medications occupy opioid receptors for more than twenty-four hours. It can be dosed once per day and at the proper dose, it eliminates craving for opioids, and eliminates the post-acute withdrawal, which is so difficult to tolerate.

We often compare opioid addiction to diabetes, because in both cases, we can prescribe medication to replace what the body should be making.

And yes, methadone is difficult to taper off of, but most of the time it is in the patient’s best interests to stay on this medication, rather than risk a potentially fatal relapse to active opioid addiction. Some patients are able to taper off of it, if they can do it slowly.

Do you think of a diabetic who needs insulin as being “handcuffed” to it? Do you think the doctor who continues to prescribe insulin is just trying to make money off that patient? Why is it wrong to make money from treating addiction, but not other chronic diseases?

AO: What about all of the former opioid-addicted people, now in 12-step recovery, who are healthy and happy off all opioids? Why are these people doing so well, even though they had as severe an addiction to opioids as the patients in opioid treatment programs?

HR: We don’t have all the answers to this question. One form of treatment, even medication-assisted treatment, won’t be right for every patient. Maybe the support that a 12-step group can provide got these people through the post-acute withdrawal. We don’t have much information about these recovering people, obviously due to the anonymous nature of that program.

If these people feel OK off all opioids, that’s great. They don’t need medication. But don’t prevent other people who do benefit from medication-assisted treatment to be helped with methadone, and buprenorphine.

Besides, not all opioid-addicted people want to go to 12-step meetings. Do treatment professionals have the right to insist everyone go to these meetings, even if patients don’t like them?

AO: Medications cheat patients out of full abstinent recovery. Methadone and buprenorphine blunt human emotions, and make it impossible to make the spiritual changes necessary for real recovery. Methadone and buprenorphine are intoxicants, and they prevent people from achieving the spiritual growth needed for full recovery. You keep these people from finding true recovery, and condemn them to a life of cloudy thinking from these medications.

HR: Various people assert patients on maintenance methadone and buprenorphine have blunted emotions and spirituality, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. How can you measure spirituality? If spirituality means becoming re-connected with friends and loved ones and being a working, productive member of society, then studies show that methadone and buprenorphine are more likely.to assist patients to make those changes.

Physically, studies show patients on maintenance methadone and buprenorphine have normal reflexes, and normal judgment. They are able to think without problems, due to the tolerance that has built up to opioids. They can drive and operate machinery safely, without limits on their activities. Contrary to popular public opinion, patients on stable methadone doses are able to drive without impairment.

However, if that patient mixes drugs like sedatives or alcohol with methadone, they certainly can be impaired. That’s why patients should not to take other sedating drugs with medication-assisted treatments.

People with opioid use disorder are far more likely to make significant and healthy life changes if they feel normal, as they do on medications like methadone and buprenorphine. If they chose abstinence, many times they feel a low-grade withdrawal for weeks or months, and this makes going to meetings and meeting life’s responsibilities more difficult.

Remember: dead addicts can’t recover. Far too many opioid- addicted people have abstinence-only addiction treatments rammed down their throats. Most of these patients aren’t even told about the option of medication-assisted treatment, which is much more likely to keep an opioid drug user alive than other treatment modalities.

Too often, people addicted to opioids cycle in and out of detoxification facilities over and over, even though we have forty years of evidence that shows relapse rates of over 90% after a several weeks’ admission to a detox facility. We’ve known this since the 1950’s, and yet we keep recommending this same treatment that has a low chance of working. And then we blame the addict if he relapses, when in reality he was never given a treatment with a decent chance of working!

Medical professionals, the wealthy, and famous people are treated with three to six months of inpatient residential treatment, and they do have higher success rates, but who will pay for an average opioid user to get this kind of treatment? Many have no insurance, or insurance that will only pay for a few weeks of treatment. For those people, medication-assisted treatment can be a life-saving godsend. It isn’t right for every opioid-addicted person, but we do know these people are less likely to die when started in medication-assisted treatment. After these people make progress in counseling, there may come a time when it is reasonable to start a slow taper to get off either methadone or buprenorphine, but first we should focus on preventing deaths.

AO: Given the time, money, expense, and stigma against methadone and buprenorphine, it should be saved as a last resort treatment. If an opioid-addicted person fails to do well after an inpatient residential treatment episode, then MAT could be considered as a second-line treatment. Let’s save such burdensome treatments for the relapse-prone opioid-addicted people.

HR: It seems disingenuous to claim stigma as a reason to avoid MAT when you are the one placing stigma on this treatment.

I could go on for many more pages, so let’s stop here. You get the idea.

In the past, harm reduction and abstinence were considered opposing views. I’ve heard some very smart people say this is a false dichotomy, and that in real life, these views are complementary.

I like this newer viewpoint.

 

Any form of treatment should reduce harm. If a patient achieves abstinence from drugs, then that’s the ultimate reduction of harm. Also, harm reduction principles can help keep drug users alive, giving them the opportunity to change drug use patterns later in life. As I’ve said above, dead addicts don’t recover. Let’s give people more choice and more opportunities to transition out of drug use, if that’s what they desire.

 

Let’s do a better job of working together in the coming year!

Access to Buprenorphine Will Expand; News About CARA

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CARA’s content addresses the following:

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

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

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

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

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

Great idea, about forty years late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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The Good

 Probuphine

Probuphine was approved by the FDA. I’ve written about this medication in several other blog posts. Probuphine is an implantable form of buprenorphine that lasts for six months. It will be suitable for buprenorphine patients who are stable at 8mg per day or less.

I think logistical problems will prevent this medication from becoming mainstream. I hear it must be implanted in a surgical suite, which makes little sense. Maybe it’s more involved than I realize, but I had been under the impression it could be done in an office setting, like Norplant.

I’ve also read that the physician must purchase and store the Probuphine implant, which adds financial risk and DEA scrutiny to a buprenorphine physician’s already crowded schedule.

As I’ve said before, I predict Probuphine will be administered at a few specialty centers, but isn’t likely to be done by most mainstream addiction medicine doctors. Still, it’s another option that hopefully will work well for patients on less than 8mg per day.

Watch your language

The field of Addiction Medicine is pushing for non-stigmatizing language to be used by treatment professionals. Words are important, and some words carry hidden and pejorative meaning in the general public.

For example, I’ve always cringed when I hear the term “dirty” or “clean” urine drug screen. I have to quash my desire to be sarcastic towards the speaker. The proper terms are “positive,” meaning a substance was found in the urine, or “negative,” meaning a given substance wasn’t found in the urine. Addiction Medicine gurus continue to emphasize the importance of using proper clinical terms. I enthusiastically agree with their efforts.

Now experts in the field want to get rid of the term “addict” and “opioid addiction.” They want to replace those words with terms such as “person with opioid use disorder,” and “opioid use disorder,” respectively.

I understand the reason behind these recommendations, and I agree with them, but it’s going to be tough to replace a two-syllable word with a ten-syllable phrase.

Besides, when I say the word “addict,” I suspect I mean something very different than the average person using the word. In my mind, the word “addict” has come to mean “person with the disease of addiction who is probably more likeable and interesting than an average person.”  But then, I chose to spend my career treating these people, so of course I think that way.

Contrast that to an average person in the community, to whom the word “addict” means a bum in the gutter with a needle hanging out of his arm. Most of the time, people are surprised when then encounter real addicts, or to use the new term, people with an opioid use disorder. Because since anyone can develop opioid use disorder, these people usually don’t look different from the rest of us.

Government Support for Addiction Treatment

When the President of the United States endorses medication-assisted therapies, we have arrived. That’s old news now, since he has been discussing MAT in some of his addresses since last year, as a way of addressing the opioid overdose epidemic. But now the promised money is starting to become available.

Available grant money fueled plans for new, collaborative opioid use disorder treatment programs in our state…

One primary care low-cost clinic just started working with their local opioid treatment center to provide needed primary care to patients in that OTP. Referrals should flow both ways, with the OTP sending patients to the medical clinic for needed healthcare, and the medical clinic will detect opioid use disorders in their patients, and refer them for treatment at the OTP.

An exciting initiative to connect people involved with the criminal justice system with appropriate medication-assisted treatment is in the planning phase. With this program, prisoners being released and people under parole and probation will be evaluated by addiction medicine doctors. Where appropriate, they will be offered methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, to better treat their illness, and they will get increased counseling.

Prescription Monitoring Programs Work!

I had a few spare hours last week, and was able to look at around 125 of my 450 OTP patients. I discovered only one patient with some questionable findings, and she’s scheduled to talk with me this week.

What a change from 2007, when over 20% of all my OTP patients had serious prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines, and/or stimulants. These were prescriptions about which I knew nothing. Patients had filled prescriptions and there was no way for me to know about it, until our prescription monitoring program came online in mid-2007.By the time I got access late in the year, I found data indicating over a fifth of our patients were filling prescriptions that could harm them with the methadone I was prescribing.

Over the last nine years, our system has improved, making it ever easier and more accurate.

The Bad

All Use of Methadone is Toxic?

Perhaps in response to my blog post that was critical of the medical examiners in North Carolina, a medical examiner called me.

My complaint in the June 5, 2016 blog is that any patient who dies while on methadone maintenance is said to have died from methadone toxicity, regardless of clinical information.

This doctor and I had a cordial yet frustrating conversation. The physician introduced himself and said he was calling me because he had promised to do so after I spoke with him last year about a patient of mine who had died. When we last spoke, the toxicology results had just been sent off. He called yesterday to tell me that the level of methadone in this patient was toxic, and that along with the cocaine found in her system, he was reporting cause of death as “Methadone toxicity, cocaine toxicity.” I already knew this from reading incident report data, but I didn’t interrupt him. I was hoping he would give me additional information, but he didn’t.

When he was done, I informed him, again, that she had dosed at 130mg of methadone for months in the several years prior to her death. At her request, we started a slow taper. She came down on her dose by 5mg every couple of weeks, and she had been dosing at 60mg for several weeks prior to her death. I asked him how, with that information, could he still say she died from methadone toxicity?

He didn’t have an answer, and just repeatedly said her methadone level was “toxic.” He read the level to me, and I told him that I have patients with trough levels  higher than that.  I told him toxic for an opioid-naïve patient may be just what one of my patients needs for stabilization.

I don’t think he ever heard what I was saying. He never got off the topic of drug levels, and implied perhaps she could have obtained methadone from another source.

I suppose this is possible, but unlikely. For this patient to have overdosed on methadone, she would have had to gotten a supply of the medication from another source. I know she didn’t get a prescription for it, since I checked the state prescription monitoring database. And why would she buy illicit methadone off the street when she could just ask to go back up on her dose if she were in withdrawal?

I appreciate that this doctor took the time to call me. He didn’t have to do that, and it probably wasn’t an easy conversation for him. I don’t doubt he’s conscientious at his job.

I only wish he could have heard what I was saying.

What I heard him was saying was more of the same: the medical examiners will base their decision about cause of death on the methadone level, and will not consider any clinical information from me, or presumably from any another other opioid treatment program physician, if a patient dies under my care.

This increases the risk of being a doctor at an opioid treatment program. Because no matter how cautious we are, we treat a group of people who die at higher rates than age-matched controls. Nearly all of our patients smoke cigarettes. Of course they can die from methadone overdose, but they also die at higher rates from cancer, heart disease, liver failure, and other medical problems created from a life time of drug use, including nicotine.

But we now know in advance that methadone will be blamed no matter what. And that’s bad news

The Ugly

Heroin Comes to Town

Last week, several people who should know and have no reason to lie told me heroin can be bought in Wilkes County. I am really sad to hear this.

Heroin has already invaded many small communities. It crept in after black market prescription opioids pain pills became scarce. Indeed, at my state’s yearly Addiction Medicine conference, most OTP doctors said they’ve been treating heroin use disorder for several years.

For some reason, the people I admitted to our opioid treatment program have thus far been around 98% pain pill addicts. Last week, more than half of the new patients were using heroin. One patient came to treatment because the first time he used heroin, he overdosed, nearly died, and woke up in the ambulance. That scared him enough to propel him into substance use disorder treatment.

You may question if heroin addiction is that much worse than pain pill addiction. I think it is, though I could be wrong about this. With pharmaceutical grade pain pills, the user has an idea, usually, of how strong the product is. There’s not much variation from one pill to another. But with heroin, the batch one day could have only a few percent of pure heroin, or 100% pure heroin. There’s no way to know. There’s no way to gauge how strong it is, unless the user dose a “tester shot.” This is when the user uses a small amount of the purchased heroin to see how strong it is. This tester shot is recommended by Harm Reduction Coalition as a way to reduce overdose risk.

Heroin manufacturers usually don’t care about quality control. The heroin could be cut with God knows what else. Some of these substances cause special problems, since they weren’t meant to be injected into the human body.

Quinine, for example, has been found as a contaminant. I’m not sure why it’s used to dilute heroin, but it is. Quinine can cause kidney damage, bleeding disorders, and severe allergic reactions. Some experts believe many heroin overdoses are really fatal allergic reactions to products used to cut the heroin. In the street parlance, adding substances to a drug is called “stepping on it,” meaning diluting it so it can go farther and make the seller more money.

Other regular heroin contaminants include caffeine, talcum powder, powdered milk, chalk, or flour.

Recently there’s been a tendency to include fentanyl in the heroin product, making it an even stronger opioid. This has caused many overdose deaths, particularly in the Northeast. I strongly suspect that’s what my patient with the near-fatal overdose injected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising the Patient Limit on Buprenorphine Physicians: HHS’s New Proposed Rule

Expanding access

Last month, the Health and Human Services (HHS) department of the U.S. government posted new proposed regulations for doctors who prescribe buprenorphine (better known as Suboxone, Subutex, or Zubsolv) from office-based practices. This rule proposes to raise the number of patients that physicians can treat in their office practice from one hundred to two hundred. They did this to make more treatment available for people with opioid addiction, to combat opioid overdose deaths in our country,

This new proposed rule is now posted online at: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/03/30/2016-07128/medication-assisted-treatment-for-opioid-use-disorders#h-63

Anyone can submit a comment about this proposed rule, until May 31, 2016.

I studied this proposed rule at length, and thought I’d give my blog readers my interpretation and my opinion of it.

First of all, I approve of the idea behind the proposed regulation. Too many people with opioid use disorder want treatment and can’t get it. Many doctors are at their one hundred patient limit and have been for some time.

I haven’t taken a new patient in months. And as I’ve grumbled about in previous posts, several practitioners in my area already have well over one hundred buprenorphine office patients. Rogue doctors are going to do what they do no matter what, but us law-abiding doctors would like permission to treat more patients.

This new proposed rule would allow physicians who have had a one hundred patient limit for at least one year to request permission to treat up to two hundred patients at one time.

However, this proposed rule is a little more complicated than it would appear on the surface. Medical practitioners have to meet certain criteria to get approval to treat up to two hundred patients.

First of all, as the regulation is written now, some physicians believe that physicians who are board-certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine won’t qualify for approval to treat up to two hundred patients. The proposed new regulation says the physician must have “subspecialty board certification.” Apparently, some physicians feel that an exact interpretation of this means only psychiatrists with subspecialty certification in addiction medicine would qualify. I read on the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s website that they want members to protest this wording to allow ABAM-certified doctors to qualify too. Thirty-six hundred doctors, including me, are board certified by ABAM, while only about a thousand psychiatrists have subspecialty board certification in Addiction Psychiatry in this country.

I read the entire DHHS document online, but the way I read it, I thought ABAM certified doctors would definitely qualify, but then maybe I’m a little fuzzy about what, exactly, “subspecialty” means. I think HHS’s intention was to include ASAM/ABAM doctors.

Practitioners seeking approval to treat up to two hundred patients must meet other criteria. In simplified terms, they need to, among other things:

  1. Have professional coverage for after-hours emergencies.
  2. Provide case management services
  3. Have electronic medical records
  4. Use that practitioner’s state prescription monitoring program
  5. Accept third-party insurance
  6. Have a plan to address possible diversion of prescribed buprenorphine medication
  7. Re-apply for permission to treat up to two hundred patients every three years
  8. Supply yearly reports about their practice and their buprenorphine patients

Several of these requirements are fairly obvious and should be standard of care anyway. For example, coverage after hours should be provided no matter if the practitioner has one patient, two-hundred, or a thousand. And I can’t imagine any doctor would prescribe buprenorphine for a patient with opioid use disorder without checking the state prescription monitoring program.

Personally, every night before I see my office-based patients, I look at their data on the prescription monitoring program. That way, if I get any surprises, I can discuss this with my patient at their visit.

All practices should have a plan to detect diversion. In my patient agreement, patients understand they may be asked to do a pill count at any time. I’ve lost some patients who failed pill counts.

Yearly reporting requirements seem reasonable, depending on what the government intends to do with this data. I assume DHH intends to monitor the quality of the care that a buprenorphine physician is delivering, and monitor the results of this care. Such monitoring is to include: average monthly case load of the physician, percentage of patients who are receiving either psychosocial counseling or case management services; number of patients being checked on the state prescription monitoring program; sending year-end reports about the number of patients who have completed treatment, number who have been referred elsewhere, and the number of patients who no longer want this form of treatment.

Physicians can collect that data without too much problem, I think.

However, I worry about how this information could be misinterpreted. For example, if the people who will review these reports expect patients to “complete” treatment for a chronic disease such as opioid addiction, they may mistakenly conclude that doctors with higher numbers of patients who complete treatment provide better care than doctors with lower numbers of patients who complete treatment. In reality, the opposite may well be true, since the standard of care with medication-assisted treatment is maintenance, not detox.

I’m also concerned about submitting the number of patients getting counseling. For maintenance patients, how long should they receive counseling? To me, the answer should be “as long as they need it.” This should be highly individualized.

If patients have been stable on buprenorphine for more than three years, with relapse-free recovery, do they still need counseling? Some of my patients are in relapse-free recovery for longer than that, and they have productive jobs, happy home lives, and no mental health issues. Should I still insist they still go to counseling? I don’t think so, unless counseling can improve the quality of their lives.

I’m not talking about new patients, fresh into treatment. Nearly all of those patients need counseling. But what if they have no insurance, and can’t afford “official” counseling? Is 12-step attendance good enough to meet counseling requirements?

There’s no way to know how people evaluating yearly physician reports will view such topics.

Now let’s talk about some of the requirements which may be deal-breakers for me.

When I read about practitioners having to accept third-party payers, I thought nope, not gonna do it.

My practice is bare-bones. I have three employees: me, my fiancé, and a man who works my front desk for about six hours per week. It’s kind of a mom-and-pop practice. Patients pay me, and I give them receipts with the needed codes to fill with their insurance company so they can be paid back. Since I don’t mess with insurance, I can keep my office costs down, because I don’t have to pay for another person to file insurance. Technically it is not a cash-only practice, since I’m set up to take credit and debit cards, but I am cautious about accepting checks. I have learned the hard way not to accept a check from a new patient.

My fiancé, who is a licensed professional counselor and also a licensed clinical addiction specialist, does the counseling for some of my office patients. He also answers the 24-hour phone, and since we are together most of the time, it’s easy for him to talk to me about whatever is going on. He screens new patients and does scheduling. He also handles most of the prior authorizations for buprenorphine medications (since I tend to get angry and swear).

My other employee, Daniel, works in my office on the one day per week that I’m open. He is terribly overqualified for his job, since he is just finishing his Master’s degree in addiction counseling. He checks patients in, performs drug screens, records the results, checks patients out and takes their money, and schedules their next visit. Besides being smart and savvy, he also knows my patients are sick people getting well.

I have few expenses. My fiancé does all the computer work that I need, and the only bills I have are rent, electricity, and various office expenses.

If I decided to accept third party insurance, I’d have to add another employee. I’ve seen the nightmares that come with billing insurance, having worked in primary care for ten years. Insurance companies deny claims for frivolous and stupid reasons, and take their time paying doctors. I heard this year from a few colleagues that BlueCross/BlueShield, the primary payer in my state, in some cases waits longer than six months to pay doctors, and still denies many claims. I’d have to raise my rates to make up for this, making it more difficult for my patients with no insurance.

Right now I charge $85 to $100 per 20-minute visit. I feel strongly that people with addiction shouldn’t have to pay more to see their doctor than people with other chronic illnesses, so I keep my rates low, relative to other providers. About half of my patients are the working poor, who don’t qualify for Medicaid in my state, and also don’t qualify for Obamacare. They can still afford treatment, because I’m also willing to prescribe generic buprenorphine/naloxone, which is quite a bit cheaper than name brand medication.

Am I willing to take on the headache of accepting insurance in order to be able to treat a hundred more patients? I don’t know if I am. I plan to investigate it further, maybe talk to some other doctors who take insurance currently, to see how big a hassle it is to get paid.

Next let’s talk about electronic medical records (EMRs). EMRs sound better in theory than they work in practice. My doctor friends complain that they cost much money, are not designed to be physician-friendly, and take up more time than they save. They aren’t interoperable, so each practice has a different electronic record. To coordinate care with a provider outside of one specific system means the record still has to be printed out on paper to be faxed or mailed.

Do electronic records provide better care? I have my doubts. I’ve bitched about EMRs in prior blogs, describing how I’ve requested records on my patients from the local hospital. Those records show on the front page, without fail, that the patient has been screened for Ebola. But I have to look at many pages to try to find a final diagnosis and treatment plan from the emergency department physician. Sometimes I find it… and sometimes not.

Privacy is a big issue to some of my patients. I treat several people, prominent in their communities, who see me specifically because I don’t have electronic medical records. They are willing to travel more than an hour one-way to see me, both because they know their records aren’t computerized, and because my office is very private, in the back on a non-descript realty building. Some of these patients may be a little paranoid about their records, but maybe not.

If I worked in an office owned by a big hospital system, how many people could get access to read my records? We all know stigma against substance use disorders and mental health diagnoses exist. It could cause damage to patients with substance abuse issues if details about addiction treatment were leaked. Ironically, my patients who work in healthcare are the ones most concerned about their privacy, and maybe for good reason.

Besides, EMRs are expensive, and probably I couldn’t afford one for my small practice.

Those are my specific objections to the proposed rule. I understand why the authors of the rule included these requirements. HHS doesn’t want bad doctors, running buprenorphine pill-mills, to be able to qualify to treat more patients. But as I’ve complained about at length and repeatedly in my blog…those doctors already thumb their nose at patient limits. So this proposed rule is likely to be followed only by the doctors who are already conscientious about following rules and guidelines.

I’m glad and grateful the HHS proposed this new rule. But I’m not yet sure I will want to increase my patient limit, for the reasons described.

After the Overdose

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I just read an astounding and completely believable study in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. [1]

This study, done by Dr. Larochelle and associates at Boston University Medical Center, did a retrospective study of prescription opioid overdoses. They looked at patients who were being prescribed opioids long-term for non-cancer pain who had a non-fatal overdose. The study lasted from May 2000 until December 2012, and included over twenty-eight hundred patients. All of these patients had commercial insurance, and were between 18 to 65 years old.

This study found that after having a non-fatal overdose, 91% of these patients resumed getting prescription opioids, and that 70% got them from the same doctor.

The lead author said he was shocked to find so many survivors continue to be prescribed opioids after having an overdose from these very opioids. He had hoped after a near-fatal experience, prescribers would do something different to address pain, in order to prevent future overdose.(https://hereandnow.wbur.org/2016/01/13/opioid-prescriptions-after-overdosing)

From other studies, we know that the best predictor of a future overdose is a past overdose, which is why I ask every patient entering the opioid treatment program (OTP) if he has ever had an overdose.

The author of this study postulated that with our fragmented healthcare system, the prescribers may not have known the patient had an overdose. Not knowing about any problems, the doctor continued to prescribe opioids.

I have no problem envisioning how this happens.

Not long ago, one of my opioid treatment program (OTP) patients missed two days of dosing. Per our protocol, her counselor called her on the first day she missed dosing. The patient told her counselor that she had been admitted to the hospital for trouble breathing, and was being treated for asthma.

Also per out protocol, we request hospital records for every patient of ours who gets admitted to the hospital, and our patient gave permission for this.

When I got the records four days later, imagine my surprise when I read that she had respiratory failure due to an overdose. Her drug screen at the hospital was positive for methadone and also benzodiazepines, and indeed she was now positive for benzos at the OTP too. This information lead to a drastic change in this patient’s treatment plan.

If we had not called to see where our patient was, she could have returned in several days and not told us about her hospital admission.

Our local hospital did not call our OTP to tell us our patient was hospitalized with an overdose. Indeed, they didn’t call to tell us she was in the hospital. To my patient’s credit, she did tell them she was a patient of ours, since it was recorded in her hospital record.

When our patients are admitted to the hospital for medical reasons, the admitting doctors continue to prescribe the usual dose of methadone, and I am happy about that, but they don’t call us to confirm the dose. They take the patient’s word for what the dose has been, instead of making a quick phone call. I worry that someday, one of our patients, in a misguided effort to feel an opioid effect, will tell his hospital doctor he’s been dosing at a higher dose than he actually is, and catastrophe could ensue.

In contrast, the big teaching hospital an hour away, which is where our patients go when they are really sick, routinely calls to confirm each patient’s dose.

The Larochelle study seems to indicate there’s a lack of communication in other medical communities as well. Emergency department physicians may administer Narcan and revive a patient, but no one thinks to take the next essential step: call that patient’s prescriber about the drug overdose.

We can’t assume the patient, now revived from a near-death experience, will tell her doctor about what happened. If that patient has an addiction, she might keep quiet about prescription mishaps, fearing her supply of opioids may be cut off.

Family members might tell the prescribers, and that’s very helpful, but often patients are told the doctor can’t release any information. That is true, but the family can certainly give information to the doctor.

I know hospitals and emergency departments are busy. Healthcare professionals are all busy. We are being asked to do more and more in less and less time. But this is a communication issue, and it need not be a physician- to- physician communication. A nurse or even a social worker from the hospital could call or fax valuable information quickly. Privacy laws can be blamed for some lack of communication, but there are exceptions in life-threatening situations.

And please, let’s make medical records readable. Even when I finally get local emergency department records about one of my patients, I have a hard time deciphering them. I’ll admit to being a bit of a Luddite when it comes to electronic medical records, but partly because most electronic records are not all that helpful.

For example, on our local emergency department records, I quickly can find the results for Ebola screening (it’s on the first page, at the top), but often I am left scratching my head about what the doctor’s final diagnosis and treatment plan was for the patient.

We’ve got to fix this communication problem. It’s great when an overdose is treated and prevented. But let’s do just a little more, and communicate to the prescriber of the overdose medications.

It is life and death.

  1. Ann Intern Med. 2016;164(1):1-9. doi:10.7326/M15-0038

Purdue Pharma Settles Kentucky Lawsuit

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Since 2007, Kentucky has been litigating a case against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. Kentucky was the only state to opt out of a prior settlement offered by Purdue Pharma in 2007, preferring to litigate separately against the company, due to the devastation that state has endured from the opioid addiction epidemic.

Kentucky was offered $500,000 to settle with Purdue in 2007 lawsuit. Last month Purdue agreed to pay Kentucky $24 million to settle the case. This money is earmarked to pay for addiction treatment and prevention.

This does sound like a large sum of money, but it’s a drop in the sea of money Purdue has raked in from sales of OxyContin.

The turning point in the case may have been when Purdue Pharma lawyers were unable to get the case moved out of Pike County, Kentucky. Those lawyers probably knew county residents were likely to be bitter about the drug company’s antics, since the county’s overdose death rate is still extremely high.

In 2014, 51 people out of every 100,000 died from drug overdose, according to data on the state’s website (http://odcp.ky.gov/Pages/Overdose-Fatality-Report.aspx ) Of course, OxyContin is not the only reason for the overdose deaths, but citizens selected as jurors may have jumped at the chance to blame someone. Who better than a drug company? The company lawyers were facing the potential for an astronomically high judgement from jurors with the case heard in Pike County.

The drug company lawyers decided to play it safe, and settled for 24 million dollars. Purdue Pharma and its officials did not admit any guilt in this settlement.

This isn’t Purdue Pharma’s first legal loss. As you will recall from my July 8, 2015 blog post, Virginia won an award of $634 million from Purdue and from its top three executives after they pleaded guilty in May of 2007 to misleading the public about the drug’s safety. It was one of the largest awards against any drug company for illegal marketing…though Purdue made 2.8 billion dollars in sales from the time of its release in 1996 until 2001. How much the company made since 2001 is anyone’s guess but it has to be in the billions.

When I started working at my first opioid treatment program (OTP) in 2001, the only drug I heard about was OxyContin. The majority of the patients entering treatment used only Oxy’s, as they called them. Patients told me how easy it was to remove the time release coating, then crush the pills to snort or inject. All during this time, Purdue Pharma was touting their product as abuse-resistant.

Needless to say, their claims rang hollow in my ears, and the ears of other doctors treating addiction

Eventually, the U.S. General Accounting Office asked for a report about the promotion of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma. By 2002, prescriptions written for non-cancer pain accounted for 85% of the OxyContin sold, despite a lack of data regarding the safety for this practice. By 2003, primary care doctors, with little or no training in the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain, prescribed about half of all OxyContin prescriptions written in this country. By 2003, the FDA cited Purdue Pharma twice for using misleading information in its promotional advertisements to doctors. [1, 2] Purdue Pharma also trained its sales representatives to make deceptive statements during OxyContin’s marketing to doctors. [3]

Testifying before Congress in 2002, a Purdue Pharma representative said the company was working of re-formulating OxyContin, to make it harder to use intravenously. This representative claimed it would take several years to achieve this re-formulation. The re-formulated OxyContin was finally approved by the FDA in 2010, eight years later. Currently, this medication forms a viscous hydrogel if someone attempts to inject or snort the medication. It isn’t abuse-proof; probably no opioid will ever be so, but it is much more abuse-deterrent than the original.

Did Purdue Pharma drag their feet in this re-formulation? Experts like Paul Caplan, executive director for risk management for the drug company, said there were issues about the safety of incorporating naloxone into the pill to make it less desirable to intravenous addicts. He also pointed out that some delay in approval was due to the FDA.

For comparison, Sterling Pharmaceutical, when it became widely known patients were abusing their pain medication Talwin, re-formulated within a year, adding naloxone to the medication and reducing its desirability on the black market. Since this was in the 1980’s, I would assume there was less technology to help back then, compared to 2002.

I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions.

No one in the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, has been criminally charged with any crimes.

  1. General Accounting Office OxyContin Abuse and Diversion report GAO-04-110, 2003.
  2. 2. United States Senate. Congressional hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on Examining the Effects of the Painkiller OxyContin, 107th Congress, Second Session, February, 2002.
  3. 3. Washington Times, “Company Admits Painkiller Deceit,” May 11, 2007, accessed online at http://washingtontimes. com/news/2007/may/10/20070510-103237-4952r/prinnt/ on 12/18/2008.

Update

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Last week, I told my readers about a letter I sent to my local newspaper, trying to explain the usefulness of methadone (and buprenorphine) treatment for opioid addiction. Happily, my entire letter was published in our local paper under the heading of “Guest Columnist.”

I was elated, especially since this piece of writing was on a topic about which I’m passionate.

I checked Friday’s paper to see if anyone had responded to my column. There were no replies, but there was another article in that issue, titled, “Task Force Targets Schools.”

This article was about the meeting of a drug abuse task force formed earlier this year by local people. Before you ask, yes, this is in the same county where Project Lazarus, founded in 2008 in response to high drug overdose death rates, has its headquarters. And no, I do not know why people in this new task force feel the need to re-invent the wheel, particularly in an area where the prior inventors of the wheel have had such success and nationwide praise. Indeed, many other areas of the country have copied the Project Lazarus model of addressing the multifactorial causes and contributors of addiction

Anyway, I don’t know the motivations of this new task force. Interestingly, this quote was found early in the article: “Education and dissemination of information appears to be the greatest way the task force can make a difference.” This was said one of the co-chairmen of the organization. This quote was in the context of providing information to youths to prevent drug use and drug addiction.

I sure as hell wish that statement also applied to facts around treatment of addiction.

At some point, methadone apparently became the topic of discussion, which was a shame, because task force members sound like they don’t know anything about methadone. I wish they would have read my guest column two days prior!

Here’s a quote from the paper from one of the task force members: “From the way I understand it, the methadone clinics are not weaning these people off methadone. They’re going for treatments and they’re just going and going and going,” According to the article, he also said that state government should be involved in requiring plans that give people certain amounts of time to be off methadone and then with helping them.

Then the co-chair of the task force, a law enforcement trainer at the local community college, said methadone clinics are supposed to have personalized plans for people who come in for treatment. “It doesn’t appear that those plans are followed exactly the way they should be,” he added. “It’s a business model.”

I’m not sure what qualifies this man to know how long methadone should be prescribed for the purposes of treating opioid addiction. He’s not a doctor.

Then another person in the task force said the goal is for a person going to one of the clinics to be off methadone in a year, “but that doesn’t happen…. It’s a business.” She said only a small percentage kick their addictions.

Who is this second person? She is – wait for it – a Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist. She works for a program where we have referred patients in the past.

As all my readers know, I am a calm and patient person who never takes things personally (yeah that’s sarcasm). Even more fortunately, I’m not the litigious type, because when someone says at a public forum that the local methadone clinic keeps patients on methadone because it’s a business model, that’s a defamatory statement. That implies I prescribe methadone to make money and not to help patients. This statement attacks my character as the medical director of that program, and cast dispersions on my professional integrity.

Drug addiction treatment should be about science, not opinion.

I know the right thing to do, the grown-up thing to do… call task force members and politely offer to educate them about MAT.

I’ll get there. But right now, I’m not ready to be a grown up.

Heroin Epidemic versus Pain Pill Addiction Epidemic

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I’m surprised at all the coverage heroin addiction has received in the past few months. Breathless headlines are appearing in all forms of media about our “new” addiction problem. Friends send me links to articles about addiction since they know that’s the field I work in. I’m as surprised to see all the media coverage now as I used to be puzzled about the lack of coverage five years ago. I’ve been treating opioid addiction for the last fourteen years, and the opioid addiction epidemic isn’t new. It’s been very well established for years.

Perhaps the idea of using heroin jolts people more than the idea of using prescription opioids. Maybe people don’t understand that prescription opioid addiction has the same physiologic process as heroin addiction. Manufactured pain pills have less variation in content than balloons of black tar heroin, so there may be less risk of overdose. However, the body responds the same to both types of opioids. The body develops addiction and physical dependency in the same way to both heroin and prescription opioids, and withdrawal symptoms and cravings are the same. Both overdose and death happens with both types of opioids.

Perhaps heroin is perceived as the hardest of hard drugs, and therefore data about heroin addiction captures more attention than pain pill use. Maybe the use of heroin crosses a line that’s not perceived by prescription opioid addiction.

Can it be that there are still people who believe if it is a prescription medication, that it’s safe? Or is it just easier to justify the misuse of a pain pill? Communities with years of rampant pain pill addiction are only now wringing their hands because of heroin addiction. These communities are now demanding action from our government.

I’m glad for the attention to the problem of opioid addiction because I’ve seen way too much complacency about this issue for way too long.

I’m also irritated.

In 2009, I wrote a book about pain pill addiction. I was extremely lucky to get an agent, and she shopped my book to four or five mid-level publishing houses. They weren’t interested because they felt the book didn’t have a broad enough appeal. I ended up self-publishing, and sold around 500-600 copies. That’s not too bad for a self-published book, but distribution could have been much broader through a publishing house. Having my book turned down by publishers with an utter lack of interest in the subject matter undoubtedly causes some of my irritation.

I went to the ASAM conference where the head of the CDC pledged to get involved in the treatment and prevention of opioid addiction. Don’t get me wrong; that’s a wonderful thing to hear. The problem is, that was in 2012.

For all who’ve just joined the movement to help opioid addicted people get help, welcome. I’m glad you’re here, and we can use your help. And forgive me for wishing you had been interested in this problem ten years ago.

Mandating Physician Education

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In May of this year, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey proposed a new bill titled the Safe Prescribing of Controlled Substances Act. This Act, among other things, calls for mandatory education of the nation’s physicians about, as the name implies, safer prescribing of controlled substances. It also calls for mandatory education about identifying patients with substance use disorders.

Physicians get very little education about this tremendously important problem. Some medical schools and residencies have added addiction trainings, but change happens slowly. Plenty of doctors in the U.S. are still mis-prescibing

Physicians are not going to like this legislation. We hate being told we have to do anything, especially by politicians. But obviously, the present generation of physicians is NOT able to prescribe controlled substances properly, as evidenced by our epidemic of prescription drug addiction.

The bill extends to any prescriber of controlled substances, meaning that physician assistants and nurse practitioners will also be required to take this training, at least in states where they are allowed to prescribe controlled substances.

Senator Markey’s bill says the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for producing this training and that it will be free and available online.

The bill specifies the training should include, “methods for diagnosing, treating, and
managing a substance use disorder, including the use of medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration and evidence-based non-pharmacological therapies.”

If everyone interprets this paragraph as I do, this would mean all doctors who want to prescribe controlled substances should be educated about medication-assisted treatments of opioid addiction, among other things.

That would be wonderful. How nice it would be for my patients to go to their other doctors, and hear, “So glad you are on methadone for the treatment of addiction. Good job.” instead of the usual insults about being on of MAT. How nice for me to be able to call other doctors who don’t think I’m a drug pusher for prescribing MAT!

Also, Senator Markey sent letters to the VA, Defense Department, and IHS, urging them to included prescribing information to their patients on their state’s prescription monitoring program. Many patients being cared for by these agencies are prescribed controlled substances, but doctors outside those systems have no way to know what is being prescribed. Presently, they don’t report to the prescription monitoring programs. I hope these military agencies chose to participate in the PMPs. It would be a way to keep those patients safer when they seek care outside the military system.

On May 15, 2015, the Huffington Post had an online article about another bill, the Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, also sponsored by Senator Markey and Senator Rand Paul. This legislation would lift the one-hundred patient limit placed on office-based buprenorphine doctors.

In the past, I supported lifting the one-hundred patient cap, but I’ve come to believe the cap isn’t all that relevant, at least in my area. Around here, I think the only physicians who honor the cap are conscientious doctors who would do a good job without legislation.

Around here, physicians have more than one hundred buprenorphine patients, and skirt the regulations by saying some of them are prescribed it “for pain.” Physician extenders without DEA “X” numbers already prescribe buprenorphine in this state. When the North Carolina medical board was notified about this, they declined to take any action.

In other words, the present regulations are flouted without consequence, so lifting them isn’t going to make a big difference. (That may not be the case in all areas of the country.) But mandating education about addiction and its treatment may help treatment providers deliver better care.