Archive for the ‘Local Governments Behaving Badly’ Category

What’s a Doctor To Do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, you will see two documents which illustrate the problem.

The second is a letter sent to North Carolina opioid treatment program (OTP) physicians from the preeminent OB/GYN group at the University of Tennessee. The first is a letter sent last month to obstetrical providers and opioid use disorder treatment providers from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, an arm of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

You will note they recommend polar opposite approaches to the management of opioid use disorder in pregnant women. The obstetricians at University of Tennessee recommend that pregnant women with “chronic narcotic use” be offered the option of taper from opioids, to avoid neonatal abstinence syndrome and to avoid microcephaly.

In contrast, the letter to providers from CSAT division of SAMHSA recommends, “Pregnant women with opioid use disorder should be advised that medically supervised withdrawal from opioids is associated with high rates of relapse and is not the recommended course of treatment during pregnancy.”

That mention of microcephaly in the U of T letter baffles me. The resources cited in their letter referred to one study of head circumference in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). There’s no mention whether the moms are on illicit opioids or MAT. The second study looked at head circumference in babies born to moms with polysubstance use. None of the studies looked at head circumference of infants born to moms on MAT and compared them with controls. Using microcephaly as an argument against MAT is a misuse of data.

Why on earth would Tennessee obstetricians send their letter to NC opioid treatment program providers? Because, as I have ranted about so often in the past, there are no opioid treatment programs in Eastern Tennessee. Because that portion of Tennessee still has no methadone programs, patients are forced to drive across the border to get the gold standard of treatment for opioid use disorder. True, there are some buprenorphine prescribers in that area, and that’s a great thing as far as it goes, but as we know, not all patients do well with buprenorphine, and we have around six decades worth of data about methadone in pregnancy.

So not only does Tennessee refuse to allow the most evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder to exist in that part of their state, but their physicians seek to control the actions of opioid treatment physicians in North Carolina, and ask us to adopt treatment approaches discouraged by all other expert organizations.

The study touted by Dr. Towers in their above letter was published by Bell, Towers, et al. in September 2016 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: http://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(16)00477-4/abstract

After reading this study in some detail, I’m surprised by the authors’ conclusions. I find their conclusions to be based on some very thin evidence.

This study was a retrospective analysis of four groups of pregnant women with opioid use disorder. The first group consisted of incarcerated women, allowed to go through opioid withdrawal without the standard of care, buprenorphine or methadone. How this is even legal is beyond me.

The study says that jail programs in east Tennessee have “no ability to provide opiates to prevent or perform an opiate-assisted withdrawal medical withdrawal.” It went on to say that the jail doctor can treat symptoms with anti-nausea meds, clonidine, and anti-diarrheal meds. They also lack the ability to perform fetal monitoring while incarcerated.

Of the 108 women in group 1, two suffered intrauterine fetal death, one at 34 weeks and one at 18 weeks. The authors don’t say what the expected rate of fetal death would be, and I don’t know either. Apparently the authors didn’t consider these two deaths to be outside the range of normal.

Group 2 consisted of 23 pregnant women with opioid use disorder who were sent to inpatient opioid detoxification followed by long-term follow-up behavioral health programs. These women did well, with only 17% relapsing while in treatment. This group had a 17% rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome in the newborns.

I guess that means all of the four women who relapsed had babies with NAS. That’s 100%, much higher than the 50% rate nationwide. That seems odd to me.

Group 3 did the worst. These 77 women had inpatient detoxification but then did not have the long-term treatment that group 2 were given. Of the infants born to these women, 22% needed admission to the neonatal intensive care unit. Of these 77 women, 74% relapsed, and NAS was present in 70% of those infants. Again, this gives a NAS rate of 95%, which is a great deal higher than most other studies of NAS in babies born to moms using opioids of any kind. Even with methadone, studies give estimates of 50% to 80% at the highest.

Group 4 consisted of 93 women on buprenorphine prescribed by office-based physicians who agreed to taper the women’s doses during pregnancy. The rate of relapse in this group was noted to be 22%, and 17% of all the babies had NAS. Again, this gives a relatively higher NAS rate than has been found in other studies. In this Bell study, NAS occurred in 76% of the women who relapsed, up from 50% of women on buprenorphine in the MOTHER trial who were not tapered.

A little sentence in the articles table of demographics and outcomes gives the clue to why their NAS rates were so high. The way this study determined relapse was by drug screen at the time of admission to the hospital for delivery, or an admission by the pregnant woman, or positive meconium screen, or treatment of NAS in the newborn.

I think relapses could have gone undetected very easily, so that only the women with a relapse close enough to the time of delivery were detected to have used opioids.

Other problems with this study have been pointed out by much smarter people than me. Dr. Hendree Jones, author of the landmark MOTHER trial comparing methadone and buprenorphine during pregnancy, commented in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in the March/April 2017 issue: Her conclusions after a review of the Bell article plus a handful of other similar studies is: “Evidence of fetal safety to support the equivalence of medically assisted withdrawal to opioid agonist pharmacotherapy is insufficient.”

Of course, pregnant patients have one big concern: “What can I do to keep my baby from having withdrawal?” and that’s what they focus on. They are willing to do anything, including coming off methadone or buprenorphine or other opioids, if it will keep their baby from withdrawal. As Doctor Jones cogently points out in the above referenced article, there’s lack of data to show medically-supervised withdrawal from opioids results in less risk of NAS.

In other words, if prevention of NAS is our only goal, there’s not enough evidence to show that reducing opioids during pregnancy will achieve this. In part, that’s due to the high risk of relapse in the mother, and in part due to other factors.

This is the state of the situation right now. Things could change in the future. We do need new studies, done with closer attention to fetal monitoring and drug testing throughout pregnancy to help us determine the ideal treatment of pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

But for right now, maintenance on buprenorphine or methadone is still the treatment of choice.

It’s not only SAMHSA that’s recommending MAT as the treatment of choice for pregnant patients with opioid use disorder. Even the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG), the professional organization of OB/GYNs in the U.S., in a position statement from 2012, says:

  • “The current standard of care for pregnant women with opioid dependence is referral for opioid-assisted therapy with methadone, but emerging evidence suggests that buprenorphine also should be considered.”
  • “Medically supervised tapered doses of opioids during pregnancy often result in relapse to former use.”
  • “The rationale for opioid-assisted therapy during pregnancy is to prevent complications of illicit opioid use and narcotic withdrawal, encourage prenatal care and drug treatment, reduce criminal activity, and avoid risks to the patient of associating with a drug culture.”

The World Health Organization says, in its guidelines from 2014:

  • “Pregnant women dependent on opioids should be encouraged to use opioid maintenance treatment whenever available rather than to attempt opioid detoxification. Opioid maintenance treatment in this context refers to either methadone maintenance treatment or buprenorphine maintenance treatment.”

A new statement from the American Society of Addiction Medicine earlier this year, titled, “Substance Use, Misuse, and Use Disorders During and Following Pregnancy, with an Emphasis on Opioids” said:

  • “For pregnant women with opioid use disorder, opioid agonist pharmacotherapy is the standard of care; the ASAM National Practice Guideline for the Use of Medications in the Treatment of Addiction Involving Opioid Use recommends that pregnant women who are physically dependent on opioids receive treatment using methadone or buprenorphine monoproduct rather than withdrawal management to abstinence.

So the experts agree. Medication-assisted treatment is the gold standard for pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

Why are some OB/GYNs in Tennessee and other areas recommending the opposite, based on evidence that most of us consider preliminary at best, and flimsy at worst?

I don’t know for sure, but I think these physicians suffer from the same biases as other non-medical people. I would like for these physicians to base their actions on the best scientific data, but that’s not happening in some areas. I believe these doctors, with the best of intentions, have been swayed by the political climates of their areas. Rather than challenge long-held beliefs about medication-assisted therapies that have been based on ideology rather than fact, they have stayed inside the comfort zone of believing pregnant women shouldn’t be on methadone or buprenorphine.

This leaves addiction medicine physicians in the middle. We know what the standard of care is, but our patients are told we are wrong, and that they should taper off maintenance medication, or not start it in the first place.

I’ve tried, one OB at a time, to educate gently about what I see as the standard of care. I’ve sent studies and position papers and other data to the OBs with whom I share patients. I’ve blogged about the negative experiences I’ve had. In short, many of these obstetricians say something to the effect of: “Who are you to tell me how to care for this pregnant patient?” After all, I’m not an obstetrician. But I do read, and I do keep my fund of knowledge up to date in the field of addiction medicine, which overlaps with obstetrics at times.

I’m terribly frustrated by the situation, and I know my colleagues at other opioid treatment programs feel the same way. I’m fortunate that there is one group of OBs who are somewhat supportive of my pregnant patients on MAT, and I appreciate that. But often these pregnant ladies using opioids are already going to one of the anti-MAT OBs, and that creates real problems.

If it’s difficult for physicians, just think how the pregnant patients feel. They are given polar opposite recommendations by their OB and their physician at the OTP. They sought help in order to do the best thing for their babies, wanting to be good mothers. In most situations, they have tried desperately to quit opioid on their own, and couldn’t. Now the OB is telling them they must taper off their medication during pregnancy, and the OTP physician is recommending they stay on it, even recommending they increase their dose if needed.

At a difficult time in their lives, these mothers-to-be aren’t sure if they are doing the right thing by being in treatment with MAT or not. They second guess themselves, and their families also recommend, with the best of intentions, that they follow the OB’s directions.

I think this won’t change unless professional organizations like ACOG reach out more directly to obstetricians in the field. Perhaps SAMHSA can organize educational lectures, given by obstetricians who know the data and know the best practice recommendations. Perhaps state medical societies or state medical boards can contact these obstetricians with statements of best practices, if more are needed. With WHO, ACOG, SAMHSA, and ASAM all recommending MAT for opioid-dependent pregnant women, you wouldn’t think further statements of best practice would be needed…yet they are.

All I know is that I don’t seem to be making any headway at all. I need help, and my patients need help.

 

 

 

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Judges Behaving Badly

aaaaaaaaaaaaStepping Stone memo from Judge Ginn (2)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Really Good Book – For Free

aaaaaabook

If you haven’t read CASA’s (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, at Columbia University) masterpiece publication from June, 2012, titled “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” you should do so. This publication can be downloaded for free, and has essential information about addiction and its treatment. http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/addiction-medicine

Casa also has other free and informative publications about other issues, like how to reduce the risk of addiction in teens (“The Importance of Family Dinners” series), the cost and impact of untreated addiction on society (“Shoveling Up”), substance abuse and the U.S. prison population (“Behind Bars” series), and the availability of drugs on the internet ( “You’ve got Drugs” series). All of these contain useful and thought-provoking data.

“Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice” outlines all aspects of what is wrong with addiction treatment in the U.S., along with recommendations about how we can fix this broken system. When it was published in June of 2012, I thought it would be would be widely read and discussed. However, I’ve only heard it mentioned once, and that was at an ASAM meeting. I wish popular press, so eager to write sensationalistic pieces about addiction, would write more fact-based information.

Every politician should read it. Every parent should read it. Physicians and treatment center personnel should read it. Anyone who is concerned about the extent of addiction and its poor treatment in the U.S. should read it.

CASA describes their key findings of the drawbacks of the U.S. system – or non-system – of addiction treatment. This nation is doing many things wrong, to the detriment of people afflicted with addiction, their families and their communities. Our mistakes are based on ignorance, misperceptions, and prejudice. All of these impede our ability to help our people with addiction. The CASA report describes these factors and how they have contributed to our present situation.
Our nation hasn’t waged a war on drugs, but rather on people who use drugs.

The CASA report describes how public opinion about addiction isn’t based on science. Science proves addiction is a brain disease, yet this fact is still debated. We know that continued use of addicting substances alters the structure and function of the brain, affecting judgment and behavior about the continued use of drugs even when bad consequences occur. We know that half of the risk for developing addiction is determined by genetic makeup. Yet surveys show that about a third of U.S. citizens still feel addiction is due to lack of willpower and self-control. Why are public attitudes so disconnected from science?

Addiction is a complicated diagnosis, existing as it does at the end of the continuum from occasional drug use to regular use to compulsive use. People often compare a drug user with a drug addict. They say that since the drug user was able to stop when he wanted that the drug addict should be able to stop when he wanted. This compares apples to oranges. If someone can comfortably stop using drugs when given a good enough reason to do so, this person isn’t an addict. They may be a drug abuser, a problem user, and at high risk for addiction, but they haven’t crossed the line into uncontrollable use.

The CASA report pointed out that most addiction treatment and prevention isn’t done by physicians and health professionals. Most addiction treatment is provided by counselors who, for the most part, aren’t required to have any medical training. Only six states require a bachelor’s degree to become an addiction counselor, and only one (Alabama, go figure) requires a master’s degree.

Even when physicians are involved in the treatment of addiction, most of us have very little, if any, training in medical school or residencies about addiction prevention or treatment. Ironically, most of our training focuses on treating the consequences of addiction.

In medical school and residency, I spent countless hours learning about the proper treatment of cirrhosis, gastritis, anemia, pancreatitis, dementia, and peripheral neuropathy from alcohol addiction. I had little if any training about how to treat alcohol addiction, and none about how to prevent it.

We know brief interventions by physicians during office visits can reduce problem drinking and are an effective way to prevent problems before they occur. Yet few physicians are trained to do this brief intervention. Even if they are trained, primary care physicians and physician extenders are being asked to do more and more at each visit with patients, and asked to do it with less and less time. Primary care providers may not be adequately paid for screening and brief intervention for problem drinking and drugging, and valuable opportunities are lost. Yet that same patient may consume hundreds of thousands of healthcare dollars during only one hospital admission for medical consequences of problem alcohol use.

When I practiced in primary care, I often thought about how I never got to the root of the problem. I would – literally – give patients with serious addiction strikingly absurd advice. “Please stop injecting heroin. You got that heart valve infection from injecting heroin and you need to quit.” I could see it was ineffective, but I didn’t know any better way at the time. I assumed if there was a better way to treat addiction, I’d have learned about it in my training.

Wrong. The doctors who trained me couldn’t teach what they didn’t know themselves.

In my Internal Medicine residency, I admitted many patients to the hospital for endocarditis (infected heart valve) contracted from IV heroin use. Each time, this required six month of intravenous antibiotics. Back then we kept such patients in the hospital the whole time. You can imagine the cost of a six week hospital stay, not that these addicts had any money to pay. Just a fraction of that amount could have paid for treatment at a methadone clinic, the most effective way to treat heroin addiction, and prevent dozens of medical problems.

But I never referred them to the methadone clinic available in that city. I didn’t know anything about methadone or the medical-assisted treatment of opioid addiction, and apparently my attending physicians, responsible for my training, didn’t know about it either. It was a shame, because in those years, the late 1980’s, we were making new diagnoses of HIV almost daily among IV drug users. Since then, a study showed a patient using IV heroin drops his risk of contracting HIV by more than threefold if he enrolls in a methadone clinic.

I didn’t learn about the evidence-based treatment of opioid addiction until I agreed to work at a methadone clinic for a few days, covering for a friend of mine when he wanted to go on vacation. I was amazed to learn about decades of evidence showing the benefits of such treatment.

Most addiction-related medical expenses are paid for from public funds. In fact, over ten percent of all federal, state, and local government dollars are spent on risky substance use and addiction problems. Sadly, over 95% of this money is spent on the consequences of drug use and abuse. Only 2% is spent on treatment or prevention.

Untreated addiction costs mightily. People with untreated addiction incur more health care costs than nearly any other group. An estimated one third of all costs from inpatient medical treatment are related to substance abuse and addiction. Untreated addicts (I include alcohol addicts with drug addicts) go to the hospital more often, are admitted for longer than people without addiction, and require more expensive heath care than hospitalized non-addicts. The complications these people suffer could be from underlying poor physical health and lack of regular preventive healthcare, but most of the cost is incurred treating the medical problems directly caused by addiction and risky substance use.

Family members of people with untreated addiction have higher health costs, too. Families of people with addiction have 30% higher health care costs than families with no addicted member. I presume that’s from the stress of living and dealing with a loved one in active addiction. Often family members are so caught up in trying to control the chaos caused by active addiction that they don’t take time for routine health visits.

The costs of untreated addiction aren’t only financial. Addiction and risky drug use are the leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S. Around 2.9 million people died in 2009, and well over a half million of these deaths were attributable to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Overdose deaths alone have increased five-fold since 1990.

We know addiction is a chronic disease, yet we spend far less on it than other chronic diseases.
For example, the CASA report says that in the U.S., around 26 million people have diabetes, and we spend nearly 44 billion dollars per year to treat these patients. Similarly, just over 19 million have cancer, and we spend over 87 billion for treatment of that disease. In the U.S., 27 million people have heart disease, and we spend 107 billion dollars on treatment.

But when it comes to addiction, we spend only 28 billion to treat the estimated 40.3 million people with addiction, and that includes nicotine!

Most of the money we do spend is paid by public insurance. For other chronic diseases, about 56% of medical expenses are covered by private payers, meaning private insurance or self-pay. But for addiction treatment, only 21% of expenses are paid from private insurance or self-pay. This suggests that private insurance companies aren’t adequately covering the expense of addiction treatment. Indeed, patients being treated with private insurance for addiction are three to six times less likely to get specialty addiction treatment than those with public insurance such as Medicaid or Medicare. Hopefully we will see a change since the parity law was passed. (which told insurance companies they had to cover mental health and substance addiction to the same degree they cover other health problems)

In the U.S., we don’t treat addiction as the public health problem that it is. Some people still don’t believe it’s an illness but rather a moral failing. Doctors, not knowing any better, often have an attitude of therapeutic nihilism, feeling that addiction treatment doesn’t work and it’s hopeless to try.

Families and medical professionals often expect addiction to behave like an acute illness. We may mistakenly think addiction should be resolved with a single treatment episode. If that episode fails, it means treatment is worthless. Families want to put their addicted loved one into a 28-day treatment program and expect them to be fixed forever when they get out. They’re disappointed and angry if their loved one relapses.

This reminds me of an elderly man I treated for high blood pressure many years ago. I gave him a month’s prescription of blood pressure medication, and when he came back, his blood pressure was good. I was pleased, and I wanted to keep him on the medication. He was angry. He said he was going to find another doctor. He thought the one prescription should have cured his high blood pressure so that he would never have to take pills again, and was disappointed with my treatment.
If we keep our same attitude toward addiction treatment, we are doomed to be as disappointed as my patient with high blood pressure. Addiction behaves like a chronic disease, with period of remission and episodes of relapse.

We have a lot of work to do. As this CASA publication shows, we have to change public attitudes with scientific information and do a much better job of training physicians and other health care providers. We should pay for evidence-based, high-quality addiction treatment, rather than spend billions on the medical problems caused by addiction as we are now doing.

Check out this landmark publication at CASA’s website: http://www.casacolumbia.org

Heroin Invades New England

aaaaaaheroinflood

Last week the New York Times ran an article on heroin, describing how it’s infiltrated not only big cities, but also New England’s smaller towns and suburbs. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/us/heroin-in-new-england-more-abundant-and-deadly.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
This Colombian heroin has a higher purity than users have seen in the past, meaning it can be snorted for an opioid high. Addicts who wouldn’t consider using a needle are willing to snort this heroin. And addiction being what it is, some of these addicts do eventually inject the drug.

In Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, heroin is causing increased numbers of overdose deaths. Some experts say heroin is now being used by pain pill addicts. Since regulations around opioid prescribing have tightened, fewer (and more expensive) prescription opioid pills are diverted to the black market. Low-priced, high-grade heroin has been released into this void, creating ideal conditions for rampant heroin use. This Times article quoted law enforcement officials as saying they are seeing triple the number of overdose deaths from heroin this year as compared to several years ago.

Wow, I thought when I read the article. This is a bad situation, and it’s been brewing for years. Maine was one of the first states to see a sharp increase in opioid addiction and opioid overdose deaths around ten years ago. So of course, their conscientious state officials did the right thing, and worked together to assure evidence-based addiction treatment would be available for all who ….…oh wait. No.

No, that’s NOT what Maine’s state legislature did. In fact, they did the opposite. Duh.

Last year, Maine passed a law last year limiting Medicaid payment for treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. Against this backdrop of addiction and death, state officials decided to limit payment of treatment to two years of maintenance with either buprenorphine or methadone, and even made it retroactive to the date the patient started. After addiction medicine specialists decried the stupidity, not to mention the illegality of this, government officials backed off somewhat from their two-year limit. But the Maine legislature cut coverage and funding for opioid addiction treatment with buprenorphine and methadone in order to save money.

As I never seem to get tired of repeating: Medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction with buprenorphine and methadone is one of the most heavily evidenced -based treatment in all of medicine.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, better known as ASAM, issued a public policy statement regarding pharmacological therapies for opioid addiction, which can be read in its entirety here: http://asam.org/advocacy/find-a-policy-statement/view-policy-statement/public-policy-statements/2013/04/25/pharmacological-therapies-for-opioid-use-disorders

ASAM’s statement says limitation of coverage for opioid addiction will cost lives. It will disrupt families and communities. It warns against limits on duration of treatment, number of times of treatment, and any other limit imposed by non-physicians on the medical care of patients with opioid addiction.

ASAM is a society of the most highly educated and experienced physicians who work in the field of Addiction Medicine. In other words, these are the best brains in the country when it comes to treatment of opioid addiction that exists in our nation. One would think that federal, state, and local governments would pay attention to what they had to say. One would think insurance plans would do the same.

The federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, passed in 2008, was intended to entitle patients with mental illness and substance abuse issues the same medical coverage as patients with other illnesses. Clearly the Act is being violated in Maine and other states, but so far the federal government hasn’t enforced the law.

I rarely advocate for the involvement of lawyers into any situation, as they can complicate the simplest of situations. However, here’s a situation ripe for picking. It’s going to take legal action by patients who have been denied federally mandated medical coverage to get the attention of insurance payers. This is against the law. This includes federal and state coverage as well as private insurance, because all have put some limits on coverage of the treatment of addiction.

It’s important to try to educate state legislators and to let them know you are watching to see if they are doing the right thing. But when they don’t do the right thing, maybe it’s time to call in the lawyers.

Pregnant Women Using Drugs

Pregnant addicts are the most stigmatized group in U.S. society. Even other drug addicts regard pregnant addicts with scorn. But the nature of addiction is the loss of control – pregnant addicts usually do want to stop using drugs, but have lost the power to do so without help. And even if they do seek help, pregnant women face special barriers to proper care. The stigmatization alone is enough to keep many women from getting help. They face overwhelming shame and blame from society and from their own families. Pregnant women don’t tell their obstetricians about their addiction, for fear they will be treated harshly by the professionals on whom they must depend to deliver medical care. I’ve already blogged about the atrocious misinformation some obstetricians accept as true about opioids addiction and treatment during pregnancy.  Female addicts, scared and ashamed to ask for help, try to hide their addiction as well as they can, and hope for the best.

If a pregnant addict does seek help, many treatment programs won’t accept her into treatment, because she is too high risk. Addiction treatment programs sometimes don’t want the liability of a pregnant addict.

At one of the opioid treatment programs where I used to work, a woman came for admission in her fifth month of pregnancy. I tried to be gentle as I asked her why she’d waiting so long to get help. She laughed without humor and told me she’d been turned away from three other treatment facilities. The first was an inpatient residential treatment program that turned her away because she was addicted to opioids. They told her if they took her into their treatment program, she would have to undergo withdrawal, because they did not “believe” in methadone or buprenorphine (Subutex). And if she went into withdrawal, she could miscarry.

They directed her to an inpatient detoxification program that also declined to admit her because they didn’t want her to miscarry while in their facility. They (correctly) referred her to an opioid treatment program. The first opioid treatment program offered only methadone, and since she preferred buprenorphine, they referred her to the clinic where I worked. This patient had (correctly) heard new studies showed less severe withdrawal in babies born to moms on buprenorphine (Subutex) compared to moms on methadone.  That clinic then referred her to our clinic, since we do use buprenorphine. All of this took a few weeks, delaying her entry to treatment. The treatment programs made the right decisions, but addiction treatment is so patchwork that it took time for her to ping-pong from place to place until she found the treatment she needed.

Pregnant women fear they will lose custody of their children if they admit to being addicted and ask for help. Sadly, in some counties in my state, their fear is well-grounded. Some women are told they will lose their children because they have enrolled in medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, even though it’s the treatment of choice for opioid-addicted pregnant women. In most cases, treatment center staff can act as advocates, and talk to social service workers who may not be well-informed about addiction treatment. Punishing a mom for getting help doesn’t help anyone. Word spreads in addict social networks, making other women less likely to get help for addiction.

Often, the pregnant addict’s husband or partner is also addicted. He may try to keep her away from drug addiction treatment, fearing loss of control over her, or he may feel like he’ll be asked to stop using drugs too. Even if she’s able to go to treatment, having a drug-using partner makes it more difficult to stop using herself.

Women, pregnant or not, tend to have childcare issues. If they want to get help, who will watch the children while they attend treatment?

Despite the difficulties faced by pregnant addicts, most want desperately to deliver a healthy baby. We know from several studies that harsh confrontation predicts addiction treatment failure in pregnant women. That is, if treatment facility personnel, obstetricians, nurses or any other member of the treatment team tries to blame and scare a pregnant addict into stopping drug use, it backfires. Pregnant women tend leave treatment when they are treated harshly, and have worse outcomes than women who stay in treatment.

I’ve written blogs about the negative attitudes some medical professionals have toward pregnant opioid addicts who come for treatment with buprenorphine (Subutex) or methadone. Thankfully, that’s not a universal attitude. Recently an obstetrician referred her patient to us, calling ahead to speed things along. I called her back after I saw the patient, and we had a cordial conversation which I appreciate all the more in view of negativity I’ve experienced in the past.

I thought again about the topic of opioid-addicted pregnant addicts because of an article in my most recent issue of Journal of Addiction Medicine. This article described the outcome of a study of opioid-addicted pregnant patients in rural Vermont. Since methadone and buprenorphine (Subutex) are the treatments of choice for these patients, the study looked to see if better access to these treatments improved outcomes. The results showed, not surprisingly, improved access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction in pregnant addicts improved the health outcomes for both mothers and babies. Earlier research showed the same result, but this was a rural group, underrepresented in past studies.

Meyer, M, et. al, “Development of a Substance Abuse Program for Opioid-Dependent Nonurban Pregnant Women Improves Outcome,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 6 (2) pp.124-130.

Tennessee: Epic Fail?

In my last blog, I wrote about information regarding prescription opioids released last fall by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information gives states’ data for both number of overdose deaths per capita and kilograms of opioids prescribed per capita. Though Tennessee had the 13th highest overdose death rate in the nation, it was the second highest in amount of opioid prescribed per capita, with 11.8 kilograms of opioids prescribed per every 10,000 people.

By the way, North Carolina had a prescription rate of 6.9 kilograms per 10,000. This means that doctors in North Carolina prescribe only around fifty- eight percent of what doctors in Tennessee do, adjusted for population.

We know that areas with more prescribed opioids have higher addiction and overdose death rates than areas with lower rates of prescribed opioids. That’s clear not only from the CDC data, but also with what we know from other studies of addictive drugs.  Any time an addictive substance is more available, more people become addicted. This holds true from prescribed medication just as it does for illicit drugs and alcohol. Just from the CDC data alone, it seems apparent that Tennessee has a big problem with pain pill addiction.

Now let’s look at the treatment options for opioid addicts. The best treatment outcomes for opioid addicts are consistently seen with medication assisted treatment with buprenorphine (Suboxone) or methadone.

Other treatment approaches can work, such as medical detoxification followed by at least one month of inpatient residential drug addiction treatment. Better results are seen with longer residential treatments, but inpatient options are often not attainable from the working poor, who are uninsured or underinsured. Therapeutic communities, where the addict lives and works in a community of recovering people, and also receives addiction counseling, can work for those people who can take eighteen months out of their lives for treatment.

And we know what doesn’t work. Putting addicts in jail doesn’t work. If it did, we would have been curing addiction since the 1950’s, when incarceration was first put forward as a solution to the addiction problem.

Inpatient detoxification alone does not work. Relapse rates for opioid addicts, in study after study, are consistently in the 90 to 96% range, and most of these relapses are within the first month. Yet in many communities, the same addicts are cycled in and out of detox, and then blamed because they couldn’t stay clean, even though we know they had less than a 10% chance of being successful.

Medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone work well, and work quickly. These approaches are more acceptable to the addicts, and much more affordable, at least in the short-term. We know such treatment saves lives, reduces drug overdose deaths, reduces infectious diseases like HIV, reduces suicides, reduces crime, and improves overall physical and mental health.

But Tennessee has only ten opioid addiction treatment programs in the entire state to serve its present population of 6.3 million. And remember these folks have almost twice the opioids than their North Carolina neighbors. North Carolina, with a population of 9.5 million people, has forty-five opioid addiction treatment programs, ready to treat opioid addicts with the best evidence-based treatment available.

Using present estimates of the numbers of opioid addicts who need treatment, even North Carolina doesn’t have enough space in their opioid treatment programs to treat them all. But then, not all of the addicts want help. Tennessee doesn’t even come close to having adequate, evidence-based treatment available for its citizens who become addicted to pain pills. Thankfully, Tennessee does have buprenorphine (Suboxone) doctors, and the http://buprenorphine.samhsa.gov website lists 292 of them. But each doctor can have only up to either 30 or 100 patients per doctor.

Why has this state, which obviously has one of the worst prescription opioid addiction problems in the entire nation, consistently opposed evidence-based treatment for opioid addiction? Sadly, it’s probably the usual culprit: stigma. Even the officials at Tennessee’s department of health and human services must not be educated and informed about which treatments work the best for opioid addicted people.

If I lived in TN, I’d be fighting mad. Actually, I’m already angry, because I see desperate Tennessee pain pill addicts driving from Tennessee to North Carolina for help. I work at a clinic in the mountains of North Carolina, and see patients driving an hour or more to get the help that should be available to them in their home state. I don’t mind. I’m glad to see them, and glad to help them. Almost without fail, they’re really nice people, the kind you’d enjoy having as a neighbor. But too many times I see these people have to leave a treatment that’s working for them because they can’t practically travel that far every day to get their dose of medication.

If I lived in Tennessee, I’d demand that my state officials get their heads out of the sand, and do something to bring their raging pain pill addiction epidemic under control. I’d write the governor, senators, and state representatives. I’d ask why Tennessee’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services appears to be indifferent to perhaps the biggest public health issue of our times. If I didn’t get satisfactory answers, I’d be sure to remember and vote accordingly in the next election. Nothing gets a politician’s attention like threatening not going to vote for them.

I might make some noise at a local level, and ask local officials why their communities have refused to allow treatment centers in a state that desperately needs them. Maybe I’d try to organize a group of concerned citizens at the grassroots level. Perhaps larger national organizations like NAMA (National Alliance for Medication-assisted Recovery) could assist.  You can find them at http://www.methadone.org/  And if you go to that website, you’ll find that Tennessee is their number one most important issue, because of the non-evidence-based proposed new regulations on existing opioid treatment programs. NAMA’s website has an address for concerned Tennessee citizens to send mail protesting the proposed regulations. You could also voice your opinion about the need for more treatment centers to help addicts.

But we know treatment centers will never be the whole answer to the problem of addiction. Tennessee, like other states, will need a variety of efforts to solve their problem.

A comprehensive solution will involve things like:

  • Better physician education in medical school, residency, and private practice about addiction and its treatment. Doctors need to know how to prescribe opioids more safely, with proper monitoring. State medical boards need to be clear about prevailing standards for prescribing such medications.
  • Physicians need to make use of important tools like prescription monitoring programs.
  • Drug courts need to be expanded, and need to accept patients on medication-assisted treatments.
  • Citizens need to realize they should not share medications with friends and family, both because it could be harmful and because it’s against the law.
  • Legal action against pill mills. To determine if a pain practice is legitimate or not, allow other physicians to review charts. Other physicians are better trained to do this than law enforcement.
  • Citizens need to make sure all medication is stored securely and out of the reach of children and even adolescents, who often get medications from the adults in their lives.

Consider letting your Tennessee officials know what you think of the job they’ve been doing

New Controls on Opioid Prescribing

As discussed in my last blog entry, prescription monitoring programs will help diminish our present-day epidemic of prescription opioid addiction, but these PMPs are just a start. State and federal governments are passing other laws, with the intent to reduce pain pill addiction.

For example, over the summer, Ohio enacted legislation aimed at physicians who primarily see patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain. Doctors prescribing opioids for more than 50% of their patients are now required to take periodic continuing medical education classes about the safe prescribing of opioids. These physicians are required to take a minimum of twenty hours of training every two years. Ohio also now says that physicians who own pain practices need to register with their medical board and undergo site inspections, as well as comply with patient-tracking requirements. Six other states now mandate doctors get yearly continuing education on pain management and the safe prescribing of opioids to maintain licensure from their medical boards.

Some doctors protest these measures, but this training is intensely needed. More than ten years ago, CASA (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) did a study that showed physicians are poorly trained to recognize and treat addictive disorders. Of doctors who were surveyed about the training they received in their residency programs, thirty-nine percent received training on how to identify drug diversion, and sixty-one percent received training on identifying prescription drug addiction. Seventy percent of the doctors surveyed said they received instruction on how to prescribe controlled substances. (1)

These findings are appalling. Thirty percent of doctors received no training on how to prescribe controlled substances in their residency programs.  Nearly a third of the doctors leaving residency – last stop for most doctors before being loosed upon the populace to practice medicine with little to no oversight – had no training on how to prescribe these potentially dangerous drugs. Sixty-two percent leaving residency had training on pain management. This means the remaining thirty-eight percent had no training on the treatment of pain.

 These doctors weren’t in specialty care. They were in family practice, internal medicine, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and orthopedic surgery. The study included physicians of all ages (fifty-three percent were under age fifty), all races (though a majority at seventy-five percent were white, three other races were represented), and all types of locations (thirty-seven percent urban, thirty percent suburban, with the remainder small towns or rural areas). This study shows that medical training in the U.S. does not, at present, do a good job of teaching doctors about two diseases that causes much disability and suffering: pain and addiction.

 Despite having relatively little training in indentifying and treating prescription pill addiction, physicians tend to be overly confident in their abilities to detect such addictions. CASA found that eighty percent of the surveyed physicians felt they were qualified to identify both drug abuse and addiction. However, in a 1998 CASA study, Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, physicians were given a case history of a 68 year old woman, with symptoms of prescription drug addiction. Only one percent of the surveyed physicians presented substance abuse as a possible diagnosis.  In a similar study, when presented with a case history suggestive of an addictive disorder, only six percent of primary care physicians listed substance abuse as a possible diagnosis. (2)

Besides being poorly educated about treatments for patients with addiction, most doctors aren’t comfortable having frank discussions about a patient’s drug misuse or addiction. Most physicians fear they will provoke anger or shame in their patients. Physicians may feel disgust with addicted patients and find them unpleasant, demanding, or even frightening. Conversely, doctors can feel too embarrassed to ask seemingly “nice” people about addiction. In a CASA study titled, Missed Opportunity, forty-seven percent of physicians in primary care said it was difficult to discuss prescription drug addiction and abuse with their patients for whom they had prescribed such drugs.

From this data, it’s clear physicians are poorly educated about the disease of addiction, as well as the safe treatment of pain. Medical schools and residencies need to critically re-evaluate their teaching priorities to include training in pain management and addiction. Until that can be done, states need to mandate yearly training for physicians on these topics, because most practicing physicians never got adequate training on these topics.

Most doctors are not happy about these government mandates. It’s human nature to resent being told you need more training, especially if it’s at your own expense. It’s difficult to get time off work for trainings and it’s inconvenient. Yet the alternative – no increase in training for practicing physicians – isn’t acceptable. The addiction rate is too high in this country to ignore, or to avoid taking actions.

Not all of the new state mandates are good ideas.

The state of Washington passed a law in 2010 that took effect in July of this year. It says only pain management specialists can prescribe more than the equivalent of 120mg of morphine per day for a patient. Non-pain management doctors cannot prescribe more than this, by law.

I think it’s alarming when lawmakers set dose limits for any medication. I don’t know of any other medication in any other state that has a dose limit set by non-physicians.

I assume Washington’s lawmakers had good intentions. They’re concerned about the rising numbers of opioid overdose deaths in their state. They based the cut-off of 120mg of morphine on a study (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan 19, 2010) that showed patients taking more than 100mg of morphine, or its equivalent, were nine times more likely to have a drug overdose than those prescribe 20mg or less. But these lawmakers aren’t equipped to understand the real life complications that may occur due to this law. Government officials have already admitted they don’t know how patients will be able afford to see pain specialists, or even be able to find a specialist, since there aren’t enough pain specialists in that state. The government’s website explaining the new rules (3) also admits there are no lists of physicians pain specialists. I couldn’t find the state’s definition of a “pain specialist” on this website, so there will be confusion as to what this even means. If it means only doctors who are board-certified in pain management, that will surely be a very small number. Some doctors have said they will avoid prescribing opioids at all, given the additional regulatory burdens.

Other critics of this new law say it gives false gives reassurances to patients and doctors that doses under the 120mg cutoff are safe. We know that’s not true. Many times the danger lies in other medications, like benzodiazepines, that are prescribed with opioids.

This same law goes into great detail about how pain patients are to be screened before opioids for chronic pain are started, and how patients who are prescribed opioids are to be managed. Patients must be screened for past addiction, and for depression and anxiety disorders. The law outlines how patients are to be followed by their doctors. Washington’s lawmakers also mandate random urine drug screening of patients being prescribed opioids, and written patient agreements. The law gets in to specific details about what needs to be in the patient monitoring agreement.

Some doctors feel the government has overstepped its bounds and will interfere with physicians’ clinical judgments. Patients are already complaining that they have great difficulty finding doctors who will prescribe opioids to adequately treat their pain.

I support most legislation that helps physicians identify and treat opioid addiction, but I think Washington’s law has gone too far. Balanced, rational decisions are urgently needed. If we over-react out of fear, the pendulum will swing too far to the other side. Over-regulation could have unintended consequences including having patient in acute or pain or with cancer pain unable to get an adequate prescription for opioids.

  1. 1. Missed Opportunity: A National Survey of Primary Care Physicians and Patients on Substance Abuse, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, April 2000. Also available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org  
  2.  Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1998. Available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org
  3.  http://www.doh.wa.gov/hsqa/Professions/PainManagement/