By Pat Anson, Editor
The Obama administration has unveiled a series of new initiatives aimed at treating addiction and educating doctors about prescription opioid abuse – amid growing signs the nation’s drug abuse epidemic is being fueled more and more by illegal opioids such as heroin and illicit fentanyl.
The new campaign, unveiled at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, expands on a $1.1 billion funding proposal the President sent to Congress last month to address the nation’s growing drug problem.
One change that could greatly expand access to addiction treatment is a proposed rule by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to double the number of prescriptions that a doctor can write for buprenorphine, an opioid used to treat addiction. Doctors currently are limited to 100 buprenorphine patients, but the new rule would expand that to 200 patients. The number of doctors trained and licensed to prescribe buprenorphine will also be increased.
HHS and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will also release over $100 million to expand access to addiction treatment.
"Expanding access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid-use disorders has been a top priority for this administration. Research clearly shows that this approach, when combined with behavioral therapies, is more effective at sustaining recovery and preventing overdose," said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The policy changes and funding support stand to greatly benefit addiction treatment centers such as Phoenix House, whose medical director has lobbied for expanded access to buprenorphine treatment. Andrew Kolodny, MD, is also the founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) which had five board members, including Kolodny, advising the CDC about its new opioid prescribing guidelines.
While buprenorphine is considered a “safer” opioid and has long been used to treat addiction (under the brand name Suboxone), it is prized by some addicts and can be abused. A 2013 study by SAMHSA found a ten-fold increase in the number of emergency room visits involving buprenorphine. Over half of the hospitalizations were for non-medical use of buprenorphine – meaning many users took the drug to get high.
“One of the most effective medications for opioid addiction is a drug called buprenorphine or Suboxone,” said Kolodny in an interview on C-SPAN last October.
A request to Phoenix House and Kolodny for comment on the HHS buprenorphine proposal went unanswered.
The White House also announced this week that 60 medical schools will require students to take some form of prescriber education, modeled after the CDC’s opioid guidelines, in order to graduate.
The lack of pain education in medical schools has long been recognized as a problem. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Pain called pain education "lackluster" in the U.S. and Canada. Few schools required a course in pain education and many did not have any pain courses.
A recent survey by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation (IPain) found that 8 out of 10 patients feel that hospital staffs are not adequately trained in pain management. Over half rated the quality of their pain care in hospitals as either poor or very poor.
Some fear the new White House plan is focused more on addiction treatment and limiting access to opioids than it is on educating doctors about pain management.
“What remains astonishing is the total deafness to the needs of people in pain. It is as if people in pain don't exist and that they are not important,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences.
“Focusing on opioid prescribing education in medical schools without also educating medical students about pain medicine is only going to further stigmatize people in pain and those who develop addictions. This is a true Back to the Future nightmare. We will be practicing 1950's medicine for the most prevalent public health problems in America. Absolutely astounding to me.”
Six Fatal Fentanyl Overdoses in California
While the Obama Administration was announcing its new plan, health officials in Sacramento, California confirmed that six people died and over two dozen were hospitalized this month after ingesting a black market version of Norco, a widely prescribed opioid painkiller.
Legitimate Norco pills are a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen, but the “street” Norco was laced with fentanyl, a much more potent and potentially deadly opioid. Fentanyl is odorless and cannot be easily distinguished from other drugs.
“Some who have taken it stated that they were told that it was Norco. However, results just released indicate that some of the pills that were retrieved have been tested and show that they did not contain Hydrocodone or Acetaminophen. The lab was able to identify the pills as containing Fentanyl instead. This indicates that they are really Fentanyl pills that have been made to look like Norco,” the Sacramento County Division of Public Health said in a statement.
Fentanyl deaths have been rising around the country – at least 22 died from fentanyl overdoses in the Cleveland, Ohio area this month alone and dozens of deaths have been reported in West Virginia.
Last year the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert about the abuse, diversion and illegal manufacture of fentanyl. Thousands of people are believed to have died from fentanyl overdoses, but because of the nature of the drug it is impossible to tell whether it was prescribed legally and used for medical reasons or manufactured illegally and used recreationally. The CDC admits many fentanyl overdoses may have been misclassified as deaths caused by prescription painkillers.
Meanwhile, a report this week in Maine’s Portland Press Herald suggests that there is a correlation between rising heroin use and reduced access to prescription opioids. In recent years the number of people being treated for heroin addiction has nearly tripled in Maine, at a time when the number of prescriptions written for opioids dropped by 45 percent.