Help for Heroin Addiction

A couple comments for regular readers… first, watch for an upcoming change to a new name. For years I’ve debated whether to adopt a name centered on ‘buprenorphine’, rather than the more-recognizable ‘Suboxone’. I believe that time has come. Second, I’m going to ‘reset’ with some introductory comments about the proper approach to treating heroin addiction, intended for those who are seeking help – starting with this post.
I’m addicted to heroin. Which treatment should I use?

I’ve treated heroin addiction in a range of settings, including abstinence-based programs and medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone. My education prepared me for this type of work, and my personal background created empathy for people engaged in the struggle to leave opioids behind.

The first barrier to success is on you. Are you ready to leave opioids behind? How ready? Are you so ready that you will be able to end relationships with people who use? Are you ready to stop other substances, especially cocaine and benzodiazepines? You will find help during treatment and you don’t have to take these steps entirely on your own. But you must at least have the desire to get there.

If you’re ready, the next step is deciding the treatment that is likely to help you. Many people see abstinence-based treatment as a ‘gold standard’ – the ultimate way to escape opioids. Unfortunately, that belief has fueled many deaths over the past ten years, as desperate people paid large sums of money for themselves or loved ones expecting programs to alter personality over the course of three months. It doesn’t work that way for most people!
During several years working in abstinence-based programs, I helped fix people who were broken by addiction. After a couple months, people left treatment with healthier bodies, cleaner complexions, and better hair. But over 90% of those people returned to opioid use, some within a few days. Some of them died because of their new lack of tolerance to opioids. In each case, counselors said the same thing: ‘he/she didn’t really want it’. But I remembered that they DID ‘want it’ when they were in treatment. In fact, some were considered star patients! At some point we must hold treatments responsible if they fail over 90% of the time.

My perspective changed. Now I wonder, why does anyone expects those treatments to work? A person is removed from a life of scrambling and drug connections and poverty, placed in a box and shined up for a few months, then put right back in the same using world and expected to act differently?
I eventually learned about medications that treat opioid addiction. I realized that opioid addiction truly is a medical illness that should be treated like any medical illness. Think about it – we treat high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes over time. We don’t cure any of them. In fact, the only illnesses that we can cure are infectious diseases, and even that accomplishment is fading as organisms develop resistance to current medications. Given that we can’t really cure anything, why do we expect anyone to cure addiction – in 12 weeks?!

Medication-based treatments for addiction represent a transition to normalcy. Doctors and nurses were removed from treating addictive disorders decades ago because of historical events that I’ll eventually write about. Clearly, it’s time for health professionals to take a role in treating addiction. In the next article I’ll discuss the medications currently available, and the reasons that one might work better than another for certain individuals.

In the meantime please check out my youtube videos under the name ‘Suboxdoc’, where I discuss the use of medications, primarily buprenorphine, for treating addiction to heroin and other opioids.

Obama’s Lousy Suboxone Offer

I was reading more about Obama’s executive order over at Dr. Burson’s blog.  I guess she is a ‘competitor’ in the blogging world, but I have to admit that her blog has a lot more detail about the issue than I do.  If you haven’t been there yet, check it out.  Keep coming back here too of course!
She wrote recently about the rules that would be required by the Feds, in order for them t o allow us the ‘right’ to treat people with buprenorphine.   I wrote to Dr. Burson after reading her post that she is providing the facts, and I can’t help but provide the emotion.  And after reading the baggage tied up with the ‘right’ to treat heroin addicts, I am.. ‘pissed’!  I realize that isn’t a word that doctors should use.  But honestly… I just don’t have another one!
Dr. Burson wrote that according to the current proposal, Doctors begging the Federal Government to treat another 100 addiction patients must 1. Use electronic medical records; 2. Accept insurance for the treatment; and 3. Require counseling of patients treated with buprenorphine products.  There were other requirements as well, but these were the three that I remember for irritating me the most.
Dr. Burson goes through her reactions to the requirements, and mine are mostly the same.  As a solo psychiatrist, I don’t see the value of electronic records.  Many of my patients don’t WANT their addiction treatment in a database. They know the stigma that they face already every time they go to the pharmacy.  Some of them work for employers who would discriminate against people once-addicted to opioids.  Some of them know they would be accused of ‘impairment’ for taking buprenorphine.  Those of us who prescribe buprenorphine know that they are not impaired– and that they’ve worked at jobs for years with no problems should speak volumes.  BUT IT WON’T.  We all know that ‘impairment’ can be in the eye of the beholder– and once someone thinks it is there, it IS there.  Once accused, how do you prove you’re not impaired?
I realize that at first glance, accepting insurance sounds like a good deal.  But now, I am able to see at most 2 patients per hour.  I have accepted insurance in the past, and that’s a completely different business.  Insurance companies reimburse psychiatrists at a rate that anticipates seeing 4-5 patients per hour.  Medicaid reimburses far below that, expecting doctors to make up the difference through commercially insured patients.  But that doesn’t work when treating addiction, where the large majority of patients are on Medicaid.  The only way it works is if the doctor works for a network where knee replacements and MRI scans subsidize addiction treatment, or where care is ‘mass produced’ by a team that minimizes the time doctors spend with patients.
I LIKE seeing two patients per hour.  The Obama team says if that is the case, I can’t see more than 100 patients, no matter how much my home town needs my services..  How ironic… if I spend less time per patient, I can have MORE patients.
I’ve written about the counseling issue before.  The requirement is a nod toward the huge counseling/rehab industry that has tried to block medication-assisted treatment at every turn.  Shouldn’t something as personal as counseling be decided by each individual patient?  Is there any other illness that requires counseling in order for patients to receive medication?  Of course diabetics would benefit from nutritional counseling– but would we consider withholding insulin without it?!
Who will decide, by the way, if the counseling is adequate?  Will the doctor stop your medication if you miss too many sessions?  What if you have nothing to talk about– so you still have to go? How many times? What type of ‘counseling’ counts?  Can a person get a massage and call it ‘counseling’?  If I get my ears candled, is that good enough? Group therapy?  Music therapy?  I saw recently that Madison WI has practices offering ‘float therapy’– is that OK? What about equine therapy?
I think you get my point.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the TREAT Act would have increased the cap and allowed doctors to decide the best course of action for each patient.  The doctor remained in charge of patient care– sort of like ‘if you like your health insurance, you can keep it.‘  President Obama stepped in front of the TREAT Act to offer something different.  I can almost hear him saying with a Bronx accent… ‘how can you turn down dis’ deal?’
With all the heroin deaths, he’s putting forward ‘an offer you can’t refuse’.   No thanks…. I’ll stay at 100.

Obama and the TREAT Act

I just read an article in the Daily Beast that reads like a better version of something I would write about the value of medication-assisted treatment of opioid dependence.  I appreciate Christopher Moraff telling a story that has been untold far too long, and I hope the story raises questions across the country.
But I have something else on my mind that deserves a story of its own.  I am just a small-town psychiatrist in the Midwest, of course, and so I could be missing something.  I watch Veep and House of Cards, but I assume that the political games in those shows are grossly exaggerated.  I’ll offer a bit of background… but if you already understand why people opposed to increasing the buprenorphine cap are idiots, just skip the next few paragraphs.
The Recover Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, a.k.a. TREAT Act, is a Bill with bipartisan support written in response to the epidemic of opioid dependence in the US.  If enacted into law, the TREAT Act (among other things) would increase number of patients that a physician can treat with buprenorphine from 100 to 500 and allow nurse practitioners and other ‘mid-level prescribers’ to treat opioid dependence with buprenorphine medications. For newcomers, treatment professionals debate the wisdom of raising the cap on the number of patients treated by each practioner.  Some people argue against medication treatment entirely and claim that abstinence is the only legitimate goal when treating addiction, despite the fact that abstinence-based treatments rarely work.  ‘Rarely’ is in the eye of the beholder, I guess– but even the most optimistic promoters of abstinence-based treatments claim they fail only 70% of the time– within ONE YEAR.   Other addiction docs advocate using medications that dramatically cut death rates, in concert with counseling.  They demand the counseling despite no evidence– none– that counseling improves outcomes in medication-assisted treatments.  But arguing against counseling is like arguing against… milk, I guess.  Who can argue against milk?
Then there are the extremists like me who argue that addiction is an illness that should be treated like any other illnesses and managed with medications, sometimes over the course of a person’s life.  Maybe counseling is indicated, and maybe not– but the need for counseling should not stand in the way of obtaining a life-sustaining medication.  After all, do we withhold insulin from diabetics who don’t receive nutritional counseling?  We extremists point out that there is no ‘cap’ on patients who are prescribed opioid agonists– the type of practice that started this epidemic in the first place.  We point out that literally no deaths have been caused by buprenorphine in patients who were prescribed the medication.  In all of medicine, THAT is the medication that needs a ‘cap’?  Doctors can treat unlimited numbers of patients with cancers, pain disorders, or complicated surgical procedures, but can’t handle more than 100 of THESE patients?!
I don’t see the point of the other groups, so I won’t try to explain their thought processes– accept one example.  Some docs are Boarded in Addiction Medicine– a secondary certification that can be obtained after certification in primary care or psychiatry.  Full disclosure– I am not Board Certified in Addiction Medicine.  I am Board Certified in Anesthesiology and in Psychiatry, and I worked with narcotics as a pain physician and anesthesiologist for ten years.  And I have a PhD in neurochemistry.  From my perspective, I have enough things on the wall. But the docs who DID get boarded in addiction medicine are angry that they get nothing special for their efforts.  The law that created buprenorphine treatment was intended to increase addiction treatment by primary care practitioners.  But that’s sour grapes to the addiction docs, who want the sole right to treat more than 100 patients.  Never mind that 30,000 people die from overdose each year, and buprenorphine could save many of them.  The addiction-boarded docs are angry that they aren’t given special privileges.  Isn’t THAT a problem!
What does all of this have to do with President Obama?  A bipartisan group of members of Congress of worked on the Treat Act over the past 8 months.  Professional societies have come to compromises over the Bill.  According to Schoolhouse Rock, Congress creates laws and then if passed, the President signs them into law.  The President often pulls opposing factions together, encouraging them to get a Bill to his/her desk.  For most of President Obama’s term, about 20,000-30,000 young Americans have died each year– far more than the total number of Americans killed by war, terrorism, hurricanes, and other natural disasters combined.    Until a month ago, I’ve heard absolutely nothing from the US President– no calls to action, no pressure on lawmakers, no requests to call our congresspersons.  But as the TREAT Act was introduced in the Senate, President Obama announced that he will raise the cap by Executive Order.  A supporter of the President would say (I know, because I’ve heard them) that the important thing is that it got done– so who cares how it happened?
Readers of this blog know that I pretty-much dislike everybody… so it is no surprise that I’m not happy.  We have the TREAT Act sitting in Congress, needing a simple majority to be sent to the President’s desk and signed into law.  During an epidemic of overdose deaths, the support would not be difficult to find for most Presidents, even with an ‘obstructionist Congress’, as our President likes to call them.  A change in the law would be relatively PERMANENT, unlike an Executive order– which can be changed with a new President, or with a new set of political calculations by the same President.   And an Executive Order to change rules at HHS requires hearings for citizen comments, which take more time– time when more patients will die.  Shouldn’t President Obama have used the operations that other Presidents used for far-more controversial issues, and changed the law?  This temporary, delayed Presidential action will get kudos from articles like the one in the Daily Beast.  And Obama gets TV time and headlines to describe how he addressed the opioid epidemic, on his own– in spite of a ‘obstructionist Congress.’
What irks me the most, though, is that an Executive Order didn’t need to take seven years.  By 2010 the overdose epidemic was well-underway, and had already killed a couple hundred thousand young people.  Did President Obama need to wait until the TREAT Act was almost at his doorstep before taking ANY action to stem the surge in overdose deaths?  From the sidelines it looks like the deaths themselves didn’t provoke a response.  But the threat of bipartisan action during an election year?  I guess that’s another story!

Counseling Schmounseling

I just noticed a couple of my recent posts….  these people have it wrong, and that person has it wrong.  One of these days I really need to print something positive and uplifting.  But not today.
Excuse the self-flattery, but I like to think of myself as a physician scientist.  That concept motivated my PhD work, and cost me friend after friend in the years that followed!  A physician scientist isn’t all that difficult to be from an educational standpoint, especially in the age of the internet.  The one thing that is necessary is the willingness, or need, to question every assumption by the media, the government, physicians, laypersons, and other scientists.   Ideally, the questions are guided by a knowledge of p-values, the process by which scientific grants are awarded, an understanding of the peer-review process, and the realization that anyone elected to office knows less about science than most other humans on the planet.
Last night I came across an opinion piece– I think in the Bangor Daily News, but I could be wrong about that– that argued that we will never stem the heroin epidemic without use of medications.  The comment section after the article was filled with the usual angry banter over methadone and buprenorphine that now follows every article about medication assisted treatment.  As an aside, why are the abstinence-based treatment people so angry about medication?  There are people out there who choose to treat cancer using crystals, but they don’t spend time bashing monoclonal antibodies!
Here is the part of this post where I start losing friends…  but let me first say that I know some counselors.  I like counselors.  In fact, some of my best friends are counselors.  But in the comments after that article I read the same thing over and over–   that meds aren’t the important thing, and that counseling is what really makes all the difference.  A couple weeks ago  the person sitting to my right said the same thing during a discussion about  medication-assisted treatments.  And that same phrase is repeated ad nauseum in lecture after lecture in ASAM lectures and policy statements related to addiction.  The phrase has even been codified into some state laws.  And why not?  It is something we all ‘know’, after all.
If we are going so far as writing laws requiring that people have counseling in order to obtain medication, shouldn’t we do one thing first?  Shouldn’t we determine if the comment is really true?
A couple years ago two papers came out– someone help me with the reference if you have them– that looked at abstinence rates after a year on buprenorphine in patients with or without counseling.  Guess what?  The counseling group did not do better!  In fact, the counseled patients did worse; not sigificantly so, but enough to clearly show that there was no ‘trend’ toward better performance in the counseled group (which would have been pointed out, were it true.)
I could hypothesize many reasons why the counseled groups would do worse.  Maybe they were angered by the forced counseling and therefore bonded less effectively with their physician.  Maybe they obtained a false sense of expertise in dealing with addiction, making them more likely to relapse, whereas the non-counseled group learned to just do as they were told.  Or maybe the counselors send out signals, consciously or unconsciously, that interfered with medication treatment.
The thing is, we have no idea which of these things, if any, are going on!  There have been no systematic studies or other attempts to understand what happens during the combination of counseling and medication treatments.  We just have a bunch of people saying ‘do them both!  do them both!–  a comment that apparently feels so good to some people that they just cannot consider things any other way.
For the record, I see ALL my patients for at least 30 minutes for every appointment.  As a Board Certified Psychiatrist, I guess that means I’m counseling them.  And from what I can tell, it seems to be working pretty well.  But even in my own case, I would never draw firm conclusions unless someone does a double-blind study and collects the data.
I encourage all physicians, scientists or not, to question some of what we ‘know’ about addiction treatment.  Is it really all about the counseling?  Maybe— but then again, smart people used to ‘know’ the world was flat, and the Earth was the center of the Universe.

Addiction Treatment Has it ALL WRONG

Today on SuboxForum members discussed how long they have been treated with buprenorphine medications.  Most agreed that buprenorphine turned their lives around, and most are afraid they will eventually be pushed off the medication.  Most buprenorphine patients described a reprieve from a horrible illness when they discovered buprenorphine.  But most have new fears that they never anticipated– that their physician will die or retire, that politicians will place arbitrary limits on buprenorphine treatment, or that insurers will limit coverage for the medication that saved there lives.
I joined the discussion with the following comment:
I give lectures now and then about ‘Addiction, the Medical Illness.’  Once a person thinks through the topic several times with an open mind, the right approach to treating addiction becomes obvious.    After all, doctors ‘manage’ all illnesses save for a few bacterial diseases, and even those will become at best ‘managed’, as greater resistance develops in most bacteria.  We doctors rarely cure illnesses.  We manage illness.
The public’s attitudes toward treating addiction differ from treatments for other diseases.  Avoiding effective medications isn’t  a goal for other illnesses.  In fact, in most cases doctors refer to skipping medication negatively, as ‘noncompliance.’  There are religious orders that don’t believe in medication including Christian Scientists… and there are religions with specific beliefs, e.g. Scientology, that don’t believe in psychiatry, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t accept blood products. I assume that attitudes toward addiction developed over the years when no medical treatments effectively treated addiction.  Doctors and laypersons came to see addiction as untreatable, and the only survivors people who found their rock bottom and in rare cases, saved themselves.  And since nobody could fix addiction, and the only chance at life was to find ‘recovery’, a nebulous concept based on spirituality, adherence to a group identity, and correction of ‘personality defects.’
What an obnoxious attitude– that people with addictions have ‘personality defects’!  Even most of the docs and therapists who ‘get it’ about medication insist that no patient will heal until we ‘fix the underlying cause of his/her addiction’.  What a bunch of crap…  as if all of those people out there WITHOUT addictions have GOOD personalities, and all of those people who got stuck on opioids (mostly because of bad doctors by the way) have BAD personalities.  I call BULL!  Opioids are powerfully-addictive substances, and a percentage of people  exposed to them, regardless of character, become addicted.  My personality was apparently good enough to get a PhD, get married, save a drowning woman, have a family, go to medical school and graduate at the top of my class with multiple honors, become an anesthesiologist and get elected president of my anesthesia group an unprecedented 3 times.  But taking cough medicine that grew into an addiction to fentanyl means I have ‘personality defects’??!!
I’m sure everyone has his/her own story.  But we’ve all heard so often that we have some broken screw at the base of our brains that we’ve started believing it.  And the mistreatment by doctors and pharmacists (and reporters and media and society in general) perpetuates that shame among all of us.
The truth is that our ADDICTIONS caused us to do things that were wrong.  We developed an intense desire to find chemicals because of the activation of addictive centers in our brains.  And THAT caused our ‘character’ problems.
I’ve written before about the ‘dynamic nature of character defects’.  Search my name and that term, and you will find the comments- or just click here.  The character problems so obvious in using addicts are driven by the obsession to find and use opioids.  When you treat that obsession with buprenorphine, those ‘character defects’ disappear.  I’ve seen the process unfold over and over, in patient after patient.  Some doctors perpetuate character problems by treating patients like criminals, and ANY person will develop character problems if treated poorly long enough.  In that way, the defects can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The character defect argument is the whole reason for counseling.  But get this– there have been several studies that looked at abstinence after discontinuation of buprenorphine after one year, with or without counseling.   And the counseling group did WORSE in those studies!  Of course, everyone interprets those studies by saying that ‘the counseling must not have been done right’ or it was not intense enough, rather than accept the data with an open mind, as any good scientist would.
Vivitrol (i.e. depot injections of naltrexone) are the biggest example of treatment based on flawed ideology.  The treatment rests on the idea that if we block receptors and counsel the heck out of people, we can fix their character defects and their addictions so they won’t use when Vivitrol is removed.  The travesty is that nobody will look at the results of this vast experiment, mostly played out in drug courts.  When you think about it, we have a long history of experimenting on people caught in the criminal justice system.  Studies in Australia showed a 12-fold higher death rate in addicts maintained on naltrexone and ‘counseled’ compared to people maintained on methadone.   When the people forced onto Vivitrol by the legal system start to die, will anyone keep track?
Deaths after residential treatment are common, but nobody keeps track of them.  So I’m not holding my breath for outcome data from the failures of drug courts!
Every serious chronic illness warrants chronic medical treatment, save one.   All healthcare professionals will say, some reluctantly, that addiction is a disease.   It is time to start TREATING IT LIKE ONE.