When it comes to solutions to the opioid epidemic - talk is cheap. The last 20 years everybody has “the solution”. The AMA came up with a new version of theirs entitled “AMA Opioid Task Force Recommendations for Policymakers.” Inspection of this page shows that it is basically a rehash of everything we have known over the past 10 years or longer. The only new message is that the AMA is now suggesting that policymakers should follow these recommendations. In this era of patient empowerment, direct advice to patients is completely missing.
Drug legalization advocates have apparently vilified the Reagan era “Just Say No” campaign to the point that attempts at primary prevention of substance use are now politically incorrect and forbidden. How can you possibly stop opioid and methamphetamine epidemics when there is a large and vocal advocacy for legalizing all drugs emboldened by the cannabis campaign? There are few reasonable voices out there saying “You know you can really live a better life without drugs or alcohol”.
It should probably come as no surprise that real action on the drug epidemic cannot be expected from a government that is unable to end a decades long streak of mass shootings. We hear the familiar refrain that people were “in the wrong place at the wrong time” or that they are “fallen heroes” and that “now is the time to move on”. A real adaptive response to mass shooting like even slightly tougher gun laws would make a difference. Despite hearing that “this is the last time that our children can be victimized” the mass shooting saga drags on - courtesy of local and federal governments.
The resolution of the opioid epidemic is another example of how our government doesn’t work on serious public health issues. The epidemic has been in place for the past 20 years. Using deaths by overdose as a proxy measure suggests that things may be improving the last couple of years, but the epidemic is far from resolved. The more recent problem has been that people who started using prescription opioids have changed to heroin or fentanyl – the supplies of both are plentiful and less expensive than the street value of typically prescribed opioid pain tablets.
A few words about the points the AMA has in their graphic:
1. MAT - medication assisted treatment for opioid use disorder is considered a major advance in treatment. That applies both to methadone maintenance treatment and more recently buprenorphine maintenance with various preparations. Sustained-release naltrexone injections are also an option but they are more controversial due to the longer induction and wait time until the patient is safely covered by opioid receptor antagonism. The current AMA position is to remove prior authorization from these treatments so that they are more readily available. Some treatments are more cost-effective than others. It is not clear from the statement how the AMA hopes to remove these barriers particularly since they have not been effective in removing them for the past 30 years of utilization management or prior authorization. They may be counting on political leverage in this case but I don’t see it happening. Regulators and politicians could easily make this an exception to the current utilization management and prior authorization statutes that they have on the books but it should be apparent from that statement that they are the problem in the first place.
2. Mental health - the document cites the well-known correlation between mental illness and substance use. The document also cites the Mental Health Parity Addiction and Equity Act (MHPAEA) as meaningful but the only way this law gets enforced is if civil action is brought against healthcare companies. These healthcare companies are protected by legislation and they basically do whatever they want. The AMA Task Force suggests that healthcare company should be “held accountable” but that hasn’t happened in the 10 years since the MHPAEA has been passed. The document suggests that a number of addiction specialists should be in the networks of these healthcare providers, but for 20 years politicians have been rationing mental health services to the point that county jails are currently our largest psychiatric institutions. The mental health suggestion in this document seems like another wish.
3. Comprehensive pain care and rehabilitation access - I would really like to see the numbers on this one. If anything there has been a tremendous proliferation of freestanding or chains of pain clinics over the past 20 years. That proliferation correlates directly with increasing opioid prescriptions. As far as I can tell there has been no movement at all in terms of determining what constitutes a quality pain clinic versus something else. This may have to do with the politics that wrung the word “quality” out of the healthcare system 30 years ago. There is also an access problem. In other words there has always been “non-opioid alternatives” like physical therapy but healthcare systems ration their utilization. This might be another area where education is important and convincing people that a course of physical therapy even if their healthcare company makes them pay for it is potentially more beneficial than taking opioids and getting deconditioned for a period of time.
4. Maternal and child health - there is no doubt that punishment-based paradigms can intrude on the parental relationships with children and result in destabilization of families. This usually occurs on a county by county basis and there are no statewide standards and no specific treatment facilities. The problem is compounded by the fact that most states consider social services to be as expendable as mental health services and it takes more than a suggestion to reverse that 20-year trend. Recently, the child protection issue as a result of substance use has become so bad that additional tax legislation is needed just to cover this problem.
5. Civil and criminal justice reforms - the most significant reform suggested in this section is that MAT is continued when a person is incarcerated and after they are released. This is a tall order considering how difficult it is for anyone to access MAT in an outpatient setting. Jails and prisons have the absolute worst record. The evidence for that is people who are acutely taken off of methadone, buprenorphine, or other psychiatric medications at the time of incarceration. That can lead to weeks of opioid withdrawal symptoms and intense physical symptoms. Despite many county jails considering themselves to be psychiatric hospitals very few of these places are equipped to assess and treat psychiatric disorders or do medication assisted treatment of substance use disorders.
That is the AMA WishList and all of its deficiencies. I have not seen a realistic assessment of the problem and how to reverse it in spite of the fact that there are two documented opioid epidemics in the medical literature and suggestions about how they were resolved. I never heard anyone referencing them. Medication assisted treatment was one component but there are other significant factors that no one seems to be talking about at this time.
Working in a residential treatment facility provides me with unique perspective on the problem. The continuum of care ranging from residential treatment to intensive outpatient treatment to date treatment to self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous depends on a number of factors to make it work. First and foremost is a competent staff in the facility with reasonable boundaries and a supportive environment. Most medical facilities do not have this because of significant bias against people with substance use disorders. There are some treatment facilities that have similar biases and they should not be allowed to admit people until that problem is resolved. The measures recommended by the AMA Task Force are medically weighted and that means that treatment facilities need to have medical staff. If the facility needs histories and physicals done medical staff need to provide that function as well as comprehensive detoxification, treating associated medical problems, and providing psychiatric care and MAT. There is no point in having residential or outpatient treatment programs in a network if they cannot provide that level of care. People who need MAT should not be treated in facilities where they cannot get medical assessment and treatment.
That basic fact seems to be missing from the AMA Task Force guidelines, state regulations, and any discussion at the federal level about what kind of treatment is needed for people with active opioid use disorders.
The AMA could be of more service referring people to appropriately staffed treatment programs and advising the public on the source of all of these obstacles of care. As I have been writing here for years now those obstacles are a product of pro-business government policy at both the state and federal level and how those rationing businesses are able to operate. Until that basic flaw is corrected - I do not anticipate any increase in access to treatment (at least effective treatment), increased access to appropriate social services, or sudden revision of county jails to suddenly make them functional psychiatric units.
There are some changes that would make an immediate difference in the opioid epidemic instead of the continued evidence-based platitudes. If there are any policy makers or politicians out here that are serious about making some changes - here they are:
1: Hold physicians harmless for providing MAT:
The suggestion that more physicians should be providing MAT for opioid use disorder has gone from a suggestion to more of a demand. Just this weekend there have been debates about why Emergency Department Physicians aren't providing MAT for every person with OUD that they see. My first thought when I saw that was: "Are they serious?" People are not presenting to EDs with casual use. They are not people coming into clinic intentionally in withdrawal to start buprenorphine induction. They are generally people with very serious use problems who end up in EDs because of a different problem. Many of them are polysubstance users with multiple drugs on board and in many cases drugs that are typically flagged as having potentially serious interactions with buprenorphine. Add to that the dearth of buprenorphine prescribers that will accept referrals from an ED and it makes perfect sense that Emergency Medicine physicians do not want to send people out with buprenorphine.
The physicians are not the problem, the practice environment is. The solutions seem obvious to me. The first is to indemnify the physicians for providing care that is harm reduction to patients with high risk. This already happens in state statutes that cover Good Samaritan provisions, mandatory reporting of child and adult protection concerns, and civil commitment and guardianship proceedings that hold the petitioners harmless for good faith activity. MAT is a very similar endeavor. But I would not just stop at a vague statutory requirement. I would tie it in with abbreviated training for MAT. When I took that training, at least half of the patient case examples were high risk with limited resources, psychiatric comorbidity, and they were using high levels of multiple substances. The answer in each of these scenarios was to prescribe buprenorphine as a way to assist the patient with the OUD aspect of the problem.
2: Open up addiction clinics:
The idea that primary care physicians are all going to start seeing large volumes of these patients will not materialize as long as there is a problem with cross coverage. I have seen it happen many times. A well intended physician starts prescribing buprenorphine and even in a mutli-specialty clinic has nobody else to assist and is on-call 24/7 for years until they burn out. There has to be a structure in place where there are clinics that can handle large volumes of patients including the referrals from all of the local EDs and correctional facilities and provide adequate cross coverage for the physicians prescribing buprenorphine.
3: Decrease the training requirement:
Unlike others - I don't think it can be eliminated for the reason I cited above. The physicians and other prescribers need to know the high risk scenarios that they can treat. I think it could probably be done in two hours with a case book of treatment scenarios. The case can be made for collaborative care/mentoring arrangements with experienced physicians, but the funding of those scenarios should be seriously considered.
4: Provide temporary housing programs to take people directly from the ED and crisis appointments:
As a former acute care psychiatrist - I know the uneasy feeling of providing brief opioid detox services and discharging patients with OUD to the street with medications that have street value. There is no surer path to immediate relapse. If we are really serious about helping people get established on MAT, they need a stable environment where it can happen.
5: States need to license substance use programs only if they provide medical services and MAT:
If we are all serious about the effects of MAT in OUD it is time to start acting like it. There is no longer an excuse or reason for not offering MAT to all patients in residential, extended care, or outpatient treatment programs. There are no religious or ideological grounds that justify not offering these services and the license of all treatment facilities should depend on it.
These are my ideas about stopping the opioid epidemic that stop all of the platitudes in their tracks. There is a rational way to proceed that does not depend on physicians sacrificing to keep the irrational system afloat. The rational way will cost money, but it will also save money but not in the way politicians usually talk about healthcare savings. It will save money and resources by saving lives, not investing in inadequate treatment, and finally putting a dent in the large circulating pool of opioid and polysubstance users that are circulating between emergency departments, inpatient units, drug treatment programs without MAT, detox units, shelters, and jails.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA