FDA: Pain Patients Dependent On Opioids Are Not Addicted

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released new guidance to drug makers to streamline the development of buprenorphine products to treat opioid addiction. Commonly known by the brand name Suboxone, buprenorphine has long dominated the market for addiction treatment.

Of importance to pain patients is a statement about the guideline by FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, that seeks to clarify the difference between opioid addiction and patients who need opioids for pain relief.

Gootlieb said there is still stigma and misunderstanding – even in the medical and addiction fields – about the difference between opioid addiction and dependence.

“Because of the biology of the human body, everyone who uses a meaningful dose of opioids for a modest length of time develops a physical dependence. This means that there are withdrawal symptoms after the use stops,” Gottlieb said. “A physical dependence to an opioid drug is very different than being addicted to such a medication.


“Addiction requires the continued use of opioids despite harmful consequences on someone’s life. Addiction involves a psychological preoccupation to obtain and use opioids above and beyond a physical dependence. But someone who is physically dependent on opioids as a result of the treatment of pain but who is not craving the drugs is not addicted.”

Someone who is physically dependent on opioids as a result of the treatment of pain but who is not craving the drugs is not addicted.
— Dr. Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

In recent years new and generic formulations of buprenorphine have been released in tablets, sublingual films, injections and implants, and the FDA is trying to promote the development of more of them.

The guidance released by the agency basically tells drug makers they may be able to submit new drug applications for buprenorphine products without conducting the safety and efficacy trials that are usually required for other medications.

“The guidance we’re finalizing today is one of the many steps we’re taking to help advance the development of new treatments for opioid use disorder, and promote novel formulations or delivery mechanisms of existing drugs to better tailor available medicines to individuals’ needs,” Gottlieb said. “Our goal is to advance the development of new and better ways of treating opioid use disorder to help more Americans access successful treatments.”

There are currently only three drugs approved by the FDA for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) – buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. Physicians wishing to prescribe buprenorphine to patients must have a special certification from the DEA and are limited in the number of patients they can treat.

Buprenorphine is an opioid that is also used to treat pain. When combined with naloxone, buprenorphine reduces cravings for opioids and lowers the risk of abuse.

Some addicts have discovered that buprenorphine can also be used to get high or to ease their withdrawal pain from heroin and other opioids. Buprenorphine is such a popular street drug that the National Forensic Laboratory Information System ranked buprenorphine as the third most diverted opioid medication in the U.S. in 2014. 

Civil Rights Case Gives Hope to Pain Patients

By Richard Dobson, MD, Guest Columnist

People with chronic disabling pain frequently complain that doctors discharge them from their practice because of the medications they take. Sometimes doctors refuse to accept patients who are taking opioid pain medications, even though the medications treat a legitimate medical condition.

There may be hope that such actions will be considered violations of the civil rights of patients.

This week the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) signed a formal agreement with Selma Medical Associates, a large primary care practice in Virginia, that may open the door for people with chronic pain to regain their full access to medical care.

Selma Medical refused to schedule a new patient appointment for a man who was taking the addiction treatment drug Suboxone. He filed a civil rights complaint asserting that his rights were violated because has a disability.

According to the complaint, Selma Medical “regularly turns away prospective new patients who are treated with narcotic controlled substances such as Suboxone.”

The DOJ and Selma Medical settled the complaint out-of-court. The full agreement can be read here.


In essence, Selma Medical agreed to stop discriminating on the basis of disability, including opioid use disorder (OUD). The settlement identifies several specific ways that Selma Medical was violating the civil rights of people with disabilities.

“By refusing to accept the Complainant for a new family practice appointment solely because he takes Suboxone, Selma Medical discriminated against him by denying him the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of Selma Medical.

By turning away the Complainant and other prospective patients who are treated with narcotic controlled substances, including Suboxone, Selma Medical imposed eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out individuals with OUD.

Further, Selma Medical failed to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.”

In the agreement, Selma Medical agreed to stop discriminating now and in the future. The staff and administration are also required to undergo intensive training on the implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Importantly for pain patients, the agreement applies to people taking “narcotic medications” for any reason and is not limited to people who are taking Suboxone for OUD. The agreement does seem to imply that people taking opioid medications also have their civil rights violated if they are refused medical care on the basis of their diagnosis and their use of opioids.

A former staff attorney in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division agrees.  

“This formal settlement agreement from DOJ affirms that discrimination in access to medical treatment based solely on an individual’s use of a particular medication — in this case, a narcotic controlled substance — may violate the law,” says Kate Nicholson, a pain patient and civil rights attorney who helped draft federal regulations under the ADA.

Anyone who has chronic pain and who is discharged from a practice or refused admission to a medical practice should let the medical staff know that this is a violation of the ADA. Show them the agreement between Selma Medical and the DOJ. Then if the medical practice still refuses care, file a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. Instructions on filing can be found here.

As part of the settlement agreement, Selma Medical had to pay $30,000 to the complainant for “the discrimination and the harm he has endured, including, but not limited to, emotional distress and pain and suffering.” Selma Medical also had to pay a civil penalty of $10,000.

It seems to me that the substance of this agreement gives real hope to the chronic pain community that discrimination based on disability, even if the disability is based on pain, is illegal and violates their civil rights.

RCD (1).jpg

Richard Dobson, MD, worked as a physician in the Rochester, New York area for over 30 years, treating and rehabilitating people suffering from chronic pain, mostly as the result of work or motor vehicle accidents.  He is now retired.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Life After Pain Meds

By Dana Stephenson, Guest Columnist

It was a warm October afternoon in 1997 when my boyfriend called and asked if I wanted to go for a ride. Being from the northeast and motorcycle season was almost coming to an end, I said sure.

I often wonder how my life would have played out if I had just stayed home that day.

It started out as a normal ride with another friend, until the friend took off down a back road. Being just 18, my boyfriend took off after him. Long story short, the road turned and we did not. We slammed head-on into a telephone pole at 85 mph. The brakes on a motorcycle don't work so well when the wheels aren't touching the ground.

I was airlifted to a hospital and was in critical condition for several weeks. I spent 10 months in the hospital and had at least eight surgeries for a fractured spine and pelvic bone, pierced colon, and bruised heart, lungs and kidney. On the outside, I only had a few scratches but I was lucky to be alive at all, considering I wasn't wearing a helmet. 

Sadly, the worst was yet to come.  I kept asking the nurses, “Where’s Mike?” The nurses would act like they couldn't hear me. I understand now they were just doing their job, but at the time I thought I was going crazy.

Three days into my hospital stay, I asked my dad the same question. He gave a simple reply, four words that I'll never forget: "He didn't make it."

Not only was this my first experience with broken bones, surgery and stitches, it was also my first experience with death.

Pain medications were necessary, along with some counseling. I made it out of the wheelchair, off the walker, and then finally the crutches. The doctors called me a walking, talking miracle.

After a few years they transferred me to pain management and I slowly began developing a new problem. To people that didn't know my story, I appeared to be normal. Pharmacists always gave me the impression that they thought I was a drug addict. Why is this young, healthy-looking girl taking such high doses of painkillers? Over the years this began to bother me more and more.

Ten years after my accident, I finally decided to get a spinal fusion, hoping the pain would go away and the social judgement would finally stop. Well, that didn't go as planned. In the 10 years since my initial fracture, I had developed scoliosis. During surgery the doctor pulled so hard on my spine, trying to get it as straight as possible before screwing it in place, he ended up re-fracturing it. Now I was in worse shape than before. 



Yet a new chapter of my life began. I had to accept that at age 29, I was going to have to file for disability. After a two-year struggle they approved my application, after first denying it because of my age. That's not even legal.

After 15 years of being in pain and treated like a junkie, I had enough. It was time to get off all pain medication. I went the Suboxone route and it definitely helped with the withdrawals. After a few years I quit that too.

Of course, I'm still in a lot of pain but taking the medications again is just not worth it to me. I moved away from home, so I wouldn’t be tempted to bum pills off my old connections.

I can honestly say I haven touched a pain pill in over 5 years. It's not easy, but I'm going to be in pain with or without the pills.


Dana Stephenson lives in Florida.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Opioid Painkillers Top Selling Drug in 10 States

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you live in Oklahoma, the drug you’re most likely to be prescribed is the opioid painkiller Vicodin -- or some other combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen.

In Texas, the #1 drug is Synthroid (levothyroxine) – which is used to treat thyroid deficiencies.

In California, its Lipitor (atorvastatin) – a statin used to treat high cholesterol.

And Tennessee has the unique distinction of being the only state in the country where the addiction treatment drug Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) is the most prescribed drug.

These findings are part of an interesting study by GoodRx, an online discount drug company, on prescribing trends in all 50 states. GoodRx looked at pharmacy and insurance data from around the country – not just its own customers -- from March 2017 to February 2018.

It then developed a map to show how prescription trends can vary by region and by state.


Levothyroxine (Synthroid) is easily the top selling drug in the country. It’s #1 in 26 states (AR, AZ, CO, CT, FL, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MI, MN, MT, ND, NJ, NV, OR, PA, SD, TX, UT, VT, WA, WI, WV, WY).

Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco, Lortab) is #1 in 10 states (AK, AL, GA, ID, IL, IN, MS, NC, NE, OK), mainly in the South and Midwest. As recently as 2012, hydrocodone was the most widely prescribed medication in the country. Since then, hydrocodone prescriptions have fallen by over a third and it now ranks 4th nationwide.

Atorvastatin (Lipitor) is #1 in 5 states (CA, HI, MD, MO, VA) and so is lisinopril (MA, NH, NM, OH, RI), a medication used to treat high blood pressure.

There are a few outliers. New York, for example, is the only state that’s #1 in amlodipine (Norvasc), a blood pressure medication, and Delaware and South Carolina are the only states where the leading prescription drug is Adderall, a medication used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).   

That brings us to Tennessee, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis. In 2012, doctors wrote 1.4 opioid prescriptions for every citizen in Tennessee, the second highest rate in the country. The state then moved aggressively to shutdown pill mills and expand access to addiction treatment -- which explains why Tennessee is #1 for Suboxone.

Prescriptions for opioid pain medication have dropped by 12% in Tennessee since their peak, but overdose deaths and opioid-related hospitalizations continue to climb, due largely to heroin and illicit fentanyl.  No other state even comes close to Tennessee in per capita prescriptions for Suboxone.  Addiction treatment has become such a growth industry that Tennessee has adopted measures to rein in the overprescribing of Suboxone.

What Makes Buprenorphine Risky for Pain Patients

By Jane Babin, Guest Columnist

Buprenorphine is the darling of the addiction treatment industry, rapidly replacing methadone as the "medication assisted treatment" of choice for opioid use disorder (OUD) and addiction.  

Unlike methadone, which can only be dispensed through an opioid treatment program, buprenorphine can be prescribed in the privacy of a physician's office and filled at a pharmacy.  As a class III controlled substance, prescriptions for buprenorphine can be phoned or faxed in, and scripts can be refilled up to 5 times in 6 months without a new prescription.

Class II controlled substances, like hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine, require a new prescription each month and can neither be refilled nor phoned in.

The only federal limitations on prescribing buprenorphine for OUD is that a physician must complete mandatory education and treat only a limited number of patients (currently 275). 

Ironically, these restrictions do not apply when buprenorphine is prescribed off-label for pain, leading some physicians and patients to turn to buprenorphine for chronic pain as class II opioids become increasingly harder to get.

Yet without training on buprenorphine’s unique pharmacology and its implications, physicians treating chronic pain may be unaware of the risks it presents. Let me explain why.


Buprenorphine’s Effect on Other Opioids

Buprenorphine is an opioid that acts as an agonist of the mu opioid receptor (MOR), which causes pain relief, just like class II opioids.  It also has side effects similar to other opioids, including tolerance, dependence, abuse potential, constipation, sedation and potentially fatal respiratory depression. 

What distinguishes buprenorphine from other opioids is that it is only a partial MOR agonist (50%).  Thus the effects of buprenorphine -- both pain relief and the undesirable side effects – don’t exceed half that of other, full agonist opioids.

Buprenorphine also has a ceiling of maximum effectiveness that reaches a plateau as the dosage is increased. That ceiling is well below what can be obtained with morphine and other opioids, but the side effects can still lead to death in opioid-naïve patients.  Buprenorphine has a long plasma half life, binds very strongly to MOR, and remains bound for extended periods of time.  Its usefulness in treating OUD is believed to lie in these properties, because it activates MOR sufficiently to curb drug craving, but not enough to elicit the euphoric effects that can lead to addiction. 

When an opioid that has higher analgesic potency, but lower MOR affinity, such as morphine or heroin, is also administered, buprenorphine wins the battle to bind and remains bound to MOR.  It can displace both heroin and naloxone from MOR, but neither can displace buprenorphine.  Naloxone can be effective when co-administered with buprenorphine -- as it is in combination drugs such as Suboxone -- but not after the administration of buprenorphine. 

Buprenorphine is also a kappa opioid receptor antagonist, which is thought to further reduce euphoria and addictive reinforcement. That’s great for patients with OUD, because it helps them resist the temptation to abuse opioids, and dampens or eliminates the euphoric effect of heroin or other opioids should they relapse.  

Increasingly, buprenorphine is being advocated for chronic pain patients.  With no more "proof" of efficacy for treating chronic pain than any other opioid, it has emerged as a less objectionable opioid because it appears safer in the eyes of addiction treatment specialists, such as Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who object to full MOR agonists for chronic pain. 

Yet safety is in the eyes of the beholder.  Despite its decreased abuse potential, buprenorphine can still be abused and cause overdoses because the ceiling effect for respiratory depression does not apply universally, particularly to opioid-naïve patients and children. Buprenorphine has caused the death of at least one child from unintentional exposure. 

Buprenorphine should not be used as the first opioid prescribed for chronic pain.  Because it cannot achieve the full analgesic effects that other opioids can, there is significant risk of buprenorphine leaving pain undertreated or even untreated.  A chronic pain patient on long-term buprenorphine therapy who experiences acute or breakthrough pain may not be able to get relief by taking another opioid.  Even more disturbing is the lack of pain control in patients who need surgery, have an acute injury from trauma or an acute painful medical emergency.

Buprenorphine Injection

Recently Indivior, a spin-off of Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals (which makes Suboxone), submitted a New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration on a subcutaneous injection formulation of buprenorphine. 

A once-a-month injection would be a significant advance for opioid administration because it would significantly reduce the risk of diversion.  A patient could hardly be accused of giving away or selling a drug that is deposited in his body, or of taking an incorrect dose.  


For this reason alone, an opioid depot formulation for a chronic pain patient with monthly administration sounds very appealing.  It might eliminate the need for pain contracts, pill counts, urine drug testing, and other indignations chronic pain patients suffer every day.  Even if another medication was needed for breakthrough pain, and drug testing was deemed necessary, the depot formulation would provide a virtually indisputable level of medication that could serve as an "internal control" for test error.  Detecting the depot med at unexpected levels would alert the prescribing physician to the inaccuracy of the test rather than suggest misuse or abuse.

Nevertheless, buprenorphine is not the right opioid for once-a-month dosing.  In a 2015 paper, lead author Dr. Yury Khelemsky described a horrifying case that illustrates the dangers inherent in daily buprenorphine use.  In this case, a patient with a history of drug addiction who was being treated successfully with Suboxone suffered a broken neck that required emergency surgery.

During the procedure, the anesthetized patient began to move in response to surgical stimulation, i.e., due to pain.  Despite increasing the amount of two anesthetics, Propofol and Reminfentanil, the patient continued to move.  Only after receiving yet another drug (Ketamine) did the patient remain motionless during the delicate procedure.  During a subsequent back surgery following discontinuation of Suboxone and replacement with short-acting opioids, roughly half as much Propofol and Remifentanil provided adequate anesthesia without the addition of Ketamine. 

Khelemsky noted that as little as 8 mg Suboxone (one third of the daily dose the patient was receiving), blocks the activity of hydrocodone for up to five days, and recommended discontinuing buprenorphine at least 72 hours prior to elective surgery.  This is cold comfort to a patient requiring emergency surgery -- which could be anyone.  

An injectable depot formulation of buprenorphine would substantially increase the risk of severe and possibly untreatable pain in an emergency situation, since a depot, once injected, cannot simply be discontinued as a pill would be.  Indeed, surgery may be needed to remove the depot and halt continued administration, while existing amounts of long-acting buprenorphine in plasma may necessitate higher, riskier doses of anesthetic to surgically treat the acute injury -- all while risking inadequate pain treatment.

Inexplicably, the extensive prescribing information on a random sample of buprenorphine products contains no warnings to either patients or prescribers of the risk that pain relief from an acute medical condition, trauma or surgery may be inadequate, or that buprenorphine should be discontinued days or weeks before elective surgery. 

Ironically, one package insert warns that additional analgesia may be required during childbirth, yet it fails to warn of any other situation that may require analgesia, or how analgesia can be accomplished when considering the unique pharmacology of buprenorphine.  

This seems to reflect the mindset of Kolodny and others in the addiction treatment industry, who always seem to minimize the significance of even the most severe pain encountered by an individual when compared to the perceived societal consequences of addiction.  I wonder how many pain patients or addicts would choose such a long-acting opioid if they understood the possibility that their severe acute pain could not be controlled.

The FDA committee tasked with reviewing Indivior’s new drug application is taking public comments.  I urge anyone concerned about this new buprenorphine formulation, and the failure to warn of the possibility of untreatable acute pain when taking any buprenorphine product, to provide comments by clicking here.

Comments can be submitted through October 27, 2017.  If received by October 17, they will be provided to the committee, which is scheduled to meet on October 31.  Comments received after October 17 will be taken into consideration by the FDA. 


Jane Babin, PhD, is a molecular biologist and a biotechnology patent attorney in southern California.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Study: Suboxone Usually Fails To Stop Opioid Use

By Pat Anson, Editor

A drug widely prescribed to treat opioid addiction fails so often that two-thirds of the pain patients who took it during addiction treatment wound up getting opioid prescriptions again, according to a large new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Researchers analyzed pharmacy claims for over 38,000 people who were prescribed Suboxone (buprenorphine) between 2006 and 2013, and found that 67 percent of them filled a prescription for an opioid painkiller in the year after Suboxone treatment.

Nearly half of the patients – 43 percent -- filled an opioid prescription during treatment. Most patients continued to receive similar amounts of opioids before and after Suboxone treatment.

Suboxone is a combination of two different medications: buprenorphine, a short-acting opioid similar to methadone, and naloxone, an anti-overdose drug.

During most of the years analyzed in the study, Suboxone was the only combination of buprenorphine and naloxone that was available. It is now sold under several different brand names.

The Johns Hopkins study, which was funded by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that about two-thirds of the patients who received Suboxone stopped filling prescriptions for it after just three months.

The findings, published in the journal Addiction, raise questions about the effectiveness of Suboxone and addiction treatment in general, at a time when the federal government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize the addiction treatment industry.

"The statistics are startling," said lead author G. Caleb Alexander, MD, "but are consistent with studies of patients treated with methadone showing that many patients resume opioid use after treatment."

Researchers say the continued use of pain medication during and after addiction treatment suggests that many patients did not have well-coordinated treatment for their addiction or their chronic pain.

“There are high rates of chronic pain among patients receiving opioid agonist therapy, and thus concomitant use of buprenorphine and other opioids may be justified clinically. This is especially true as the absence of pain management among patients with opioid use disorders may result in problematic behaviors such as illicit drug use and misuse of other prescription medications,” Alexander wrote.

Prescriptions for Suboxone and other brands of buprenorphine have soared in recent years as the U.S. grapples with an “opioid epidemic” that was initially fueled by painkillers, but is now increasingly caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl. Sales of buprenorphine now exceed $2 billion annually and are likely to keep growing.

Last year the federal government nearly tripled the number patients that can be treated with buprenorphine by an eligible physician. Raising the limit from 100 to 275 patients was intended to give addicts greater access to treatment, especially in rural areas where few doctors are certified to prescribe buprenoprhine.

An additional $1 billion in funding for addiction treatment was approved by Congress last year under the 21st Century Cures Act. Much of that money will be used to pay for buprenorphine prescriptions.

Addicts long ago discovered that buprenorphine can be used to get high or to ease their withdrawal pains from heroin and other opioids. Buprenorphine is such a popular street drug that the National Forensic Laboratory Information System ranked it as the third most diverted opioid medication in the U.S. in 2014. 

An Open Letter to President-Elect Trump

By Percy Menzies, Guest Columnist

Dear President-Elect Trump,

You will soon have an extraordinary opportunity to save thousands of lives with one stroke of the pen! I am talking about reducing overdose deaths from opioid overdoses. How is this possible?

We have three highly effective medications for the treatment of opioid addiction, but they are grossly under-utilized, largely due to accessibility. Two of the three drugs used to treat opioid use disorder have restrictions that have no place when overdose deaths exceed 30,000 per year. These restrictions made sense at a different time, but these barriers are now inadvertently contributing to overdose deaths.

I am specifically talking about buprenorphine, the most widely used medication in the battle against the opioid epidemic. This medication, better known by its brand name Suboxone, is an opioid with a very safe profile. Its unique pharmacology makes it almost impossible to overdose.

There are barriers to the use of this medication which made sense 14 years ago, when heroin was not a public health issue, but today they are a hindrance to saving lives.

Buprenorphine is the only drug that requires physicians to complete eight hours of training and then apply to the Drug Enforcement Administration to obtain a special exemption to prescribe it. It gets worse. Physicians can only treat 30 patients with this medication in the first year, and then they must obtain permission from the DEA to increase the limit to 100 patients. The physician also has to keep clear records and can expect a visit from a DEA agent to look at the records. 

This is a major deterrent and way too few physicians have bothered to obtain the required exemption. Any physician who has a DEA license can prescribe an FDA-approved controlled substance without restriction, but they have to deal with this barrier to prescribe buprenorphine. 

These restrictions were put in place to prevent buprenorphine from joining the opioid “pill mills” when few anticipated heroin sweeping our cities and towns. At the present time, there is no strategy in place to cut off or curtail the supply of heroin, or heroin that is laced with super potent opioids like fentanyl. Deaths from prescription opioids are declining, while deaths from heroin and fentanyl are climbing. Indeed, prescriptions for opioids drugs have fallen between 12 -25%, but the overdoses deaths have not declined. 

Yes, buprenorphine is being diverted, but most experts believe that is due to the lack of treatment. Patients desperately seeking treatment are purchasing the drug on the streets. Many experts believe that if patients have expanded and easier access to buprenorphine, the diversion will drastically reduce and more patients will be in treatment and get away from heroin.

Several steps have been taken to address this catastrophic problem, but these steps are woefully inadequate. Expansion of the needle-exchange programs and the widespread distribution of the opioid overdose drug naloxone (better known by the brand name Narcan) are welcome and should be expanded, but they are at best palliative in nature. These measures do little to address the underlying addiction.

The federal government is increasing the patient limits for buprenorphine for selected specialists from 100 to 275, and will also allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to complete the required training and obtain the DEA exemption to prescribe buprenorphine. These are welcome steps, but fall far short of the response required to expand treatment and reduce deaths. 

You got elected on a law-and-order platform and a promise to reduce the flow of heroin coming in from Mexico. Almost 50 years ago, Richard Nixon got elected on a similar platform.  He too faced an unprecedented public health epidemic of heroin addiction – one that is nowhere close to what we are facing today.  

President Nixon is remembered for taking a bold measure, which at that time was controversial. He initiated the opening of methadone clinics, which for the first time provided evidence-based treatment for heroin addicts. This measure reduced overdose deaths, protected society from criminal activity, and allowed these patients to become productive members of society.  For the first time in the dark and checkered history of our nation, addiction was treated as a chronic healthcare issue and not a criminal activity. 

Nixon went a step further to curb the supply of heroin coming into this country. He put political pressure on France to shut down the illegal labs processing Turkish-grown opium into heroin. Turkey also complied with the strong U.S. demand to curb the illegal cultivation of opium. Who can forget The French Connection, the thriller movie about this operation.

Mr. Trump, you have an extraordinary opportunity to lift the present restrictions on buprenorphine through executive order, to lure patients away from heroin and drastically reduce overdose deaths. Your action would provide increased treatment and not just palliative care.

Furthermore, you are in the best position to bring pressure on Mexico to eliminate the opium processing labs and drastically reduce heroin coming into this country.  An epidemic is best treated when effective treatment is combined with eliminating factors contributing to the spread of the epidemic. In this case, it is the supply of heroin.

This one single action will earn you the gratitude of tens of thousands of families terrified at hearing a knock on the door informing them of the death of a loved one. You will also earn the gratitude of millions of patients suffering from chronic pain, who have been needlessly cut off from prescription opioids because of the overreaction of regulators and many physicians.

You will be remembered in history for a bold action that saved a generation from succumbing to a man-made epidemic.

Percy Menzies, M. Pharm, is the president of the Assisted Recovery Centers of America, a treatment center based in St Louis, Missouri.

He can be reached at: percymenzies@arcamidwest.com

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

New Rule Expands Access to Buprenorphine

By Pat Anson, Editor

This week marks the start of a major expansion in access to buprenorphine – a medication that is both widely praised for treating opioid addiction and also blamed for fanning the flames of abuse and diversion.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) updated a federal rule, nearly tripling the number patients that can be treated with buprenorphine by an eligible physician.

Raising the limit from 100 to 275 patients is intended to give addicts greater access to buprenorphine, especially in rural areas where few doctors are certified to prescribe the drug. According to HHS, over two million people who are dependent on heroin and other opioids could benefit from buprenorphine treatment.

“For too long, addiction specialists like me have had to turn patients in need away from treatment that might save their lives, not because we don’t have the expertise or capacity to treat them, but because of an arbitrary federal limit,” said Dr. Jeffrey Goldsmith, President of the American Society of Addiction Medicine .

But critics of the rule change say there will be a price to pay.

“Buprenorphine is one of the most abused pharmaceuticals in the world,” warns Percy Menzies, president of Assisted Recovery Centers of America, which operates four addiction treatment clinics in the St. Louis area.

“Sales of buprenorphine formulations have exceeded $2 billion a year, but we have not had any lessening of heroin addiction. Increased access to buprenorphine and increased availability of potent heroin and heroin laced drugs like fentanyl will only exacerbate the problem.”

The problem with buprenorphine is that it’s an opioid that can be used to treat pain or addiction. When combined with naloxone, buprenorphine reduces cravings for opioids and lowers the risk of abuse. For many years the drug was sold exclusively under the brand name Suboxone, but it is now produced by several different drug makers and is sold in tablets, sublingual films and even an implant.

Addicts long ago discovered that buprenorphine can also be used to get high or to ease their withdrawal pains from heroin and other opioids. Buprenorphine is such a popular street drug that the National Forensic Laboratory Information System ranked buprenorphine as the third most diverted opioid medication in the U.S. in 2014. 

“Too many physicians erroneously believe that naloxone in the formulation makes the drug safe,” Menzies said in an email to Pain News Network. “Increasing the limit is definitely going to increase diversion. The majority of the physicians prescribing buprenorphine do not provide any comprehensive relapse prevention counseling, random drug testing, etc. In the absence of standards for treating addictive disorders, anything goes and will be no different than treating chronic pain.

“We saw the problem with prescription opioids when opioids were promoted as safe and non-abusable in the treatment of chronic pain. Very quickly the numbers grew into the tens of millions and the addiction exploded. The unintended victims were the patients in genuine chronic pain.”

Menzies uses buprenorphine as an initial treatment for opioid addiction in his clinics, but prefers another medication -- naltrexone -- for long-term maintenance therapy. He says doctors who rely on buprenorphine exclusively will, in effect, be sentencing their patients to lifetime use of the drug.     

"Financial Opportunity" for Doctors

HHS acknowledges there could be “unintended negative consequences” to increased prescribing of buprenorphine. One is diversion. Another is an increase in patient volume, physician profits and buprenorphine “pill mills” – which are already popping up in states like Florida. Patients typically pay cash for buprenorphine at those clinics and receive little or no addiction counseling or services.  

“This proposed rule directly expands opportunities for physicians who currently treat or who may treat patients with buprenorphine,” HHS said in an extensive analysis of the rule change. “We believe that this may translate to a financial opportunity for these physicians.”

HHS estimates the cost of treating new buprenorphine patients at up to $313 million in the first year alone. Many of the patients are low-income and the bills for treating them – about $4,300 annually for each patient – will often be covered by Medicaid. The additional cost of treating these patients, according to HHS, will be offset by the health benefits achieved by getting addicts into treatment, which the agency generously estimates at $1.7 billion.

The Obama administration asked Congress for nearly $1 billion in additional funding to help pay for addiction treatment, but didn’t get it in when Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA Act). The President reluctantly signed the bill into law anyway.

A little noticed provision of the CARA Act is that it expands access to buprenorphine even further. Currently only a trained and certified physician can prescribe buprenorphine, but CARA requires HHS to update its rules within 18 months to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe buprenorphine, provided they undergo training first.

How can buprenorphine diversion be prevented when access to it is rapidly increasing?

One solution proposed by Menzies is to change the classification of buprenorphine from a Schedule III controlled substance to a Schedule II drug – the same classification change that hydrocodone went through in 2014. Such a move would limit buprenorphine prescriptions to an initial 90-day supply and require patients to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a refill.

“We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We need to increase access to buprenorphine and it will lead to increased diversion and abuse, and therefore I am recommending changing the schedule,” Menzies said in his email to PNN.

“This is the psychotic state of affairs! No chronic condition/disease/disorder has ever been successfully treated with an addicting drug and we think we can do it for opioid addiction!”

FDA Approves New Drug Implant

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of a new drug implant for the treatment of opioid addiction.  Probuphine is the first implant of its kind approved by the agency and could potentially be a game changer for other medical conditions such as chronic pain that require steady doses of medication around-the-clock.

Probuphine is designed to be inserted into the arm beneath the skin, where it delivers a low dose of burprenorphine directly into the bloodstream for up to six months.  

Buprenorphine is an opioid itself, but when combined with naloxone, the medication reduces cravings for opioids. Until now the drug has only been available as a pill or film strips placed under the tongue.

For many years buprenorphine was sold exclusively under the brand name Suboxone, but several pharmaceutical companies have entered the lucrative addiction treatment market and now make versions of their own. As many as 2.3 million people who are dependent on opioid pain medication or heroin could benefit from buprenorphine treatment,

FDA approval was a major win Braeburn Pharmaceuticals and its partner, Titan Pharmaceuticals (OTC: TTNP), which holds the rights to the implant technology. Titan and Braeburn were stunned in 2013 when the FDA denied approval of the implant and asked for new clinical studies proving Probuphine’s effectiveness.  

Results from a recent Phase III study showed that over 85% of the patients who had the implant abstained from using illicit opioids for six months, compared to about 72% of patients who used buprenorphine film strips that were taken daily.

"Opioid abuse and addiction have taken a devastating toll on American families. We must do everything we can to make new, innovative treatment options available that can help patients regain control over their lives,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD. “Today’s approval provides the first-ever implantable option to support patients’ efforts to maintain treatment as part of their overall recovery program.”

Expanding the availability of addiction treatment is a major goal of the Obama administration. The White House has asked Congress for an additional $1.1 billion to fight opioid abuse, with much of the money earmarked for addiction treatment. The administration has also proposed doubling the number of patients that doctors can treat with buprenorphine from 100 to 200.

Buprenorphine can be abused and is a popular street drug that is used to get high or to ease withdrawal pains from illegal opioids such as heroin. An implant will be much more difficult to abuse, since it can’t be crushed or liquefied for snorting or injecting. It’s also less likely to be diverted.

Probuphine is expected to cost about $1,000 a month. It consists of four, one-inch-long rods that are implanted under the skin on the inside of the upper arm. Administering Probuphine will require special training because it must be surgically inserted and removed.

The most common side effects are pain at the implant site, as well as itching, redness, headache, depression, constipation, nausea, vomiting, back pain, toothache and oral pain. The FDA is requiring post-marketing studies to establish the safety and effectiveness of the implants.

Probuphine was developed using a patented implant technology called ProNeura, which is designed to provide continuous levels of medication in the blood. Titan is also developing implants to treat Parkinson’s disease and hypothyroidism, and its CEO told Pain News Network that ProNeura could also potentially be used to deliver pain medication.

“Clinical studies will need to be done to establish the ability, but the drug levels can certainly be delivered that are going to be beneficial for treating chronic pain,” said Titan CEO and President Sunil Bhonsle. “There are many applications for this technology and I think the medical community is now more in tune with looking at long-term delivery technology in the chronic disease setting.”

“It is part of our plan to move into pain because pain and opioid addiction are so interconnected and we think there are ways, by treating patients with a less abuse-able formulation, you could actually help alleviate the addiction problem,” Behshad Sheldon, President and CEO of Braeburn, told PNN in an earlier interview.

The Coming ‘Economic Bonanza’ in Addiction Treatment

By Pat Anson, Editor

The addiction treatment industry is lobbying hard for a proposed rule change to expand the number of patients that doctors can treat for opioid addiction. At stake is hundreds of millions of dollars in potential new business, much of it paid for by taxpayers.

The Obama administration has proposed doubling the maximum number of patients that a doctor can prescribe with buprenorphine from 100 to 200. Buprenorphine is an opioid that can be used to treat both pain and addiction. When combined with naloxone, buprenorphine reduces cravings for opioids and lowers the risk of abuse.

For many years the drug was sold exclusively under the brand name Suboxone, but it is now produced by several different drug makers and generates nearly $2 billion in sales annually.

Because buprenorphine is an opioid that can also be abused, prescribers have to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration and undergo special training. Over 33,000 doctors have done so, but most are limited to just 30 patients.

About 10,000 physicians are currently allowed to prescribe buprenorphine to the maximum number of 100 patients.

Many addiction experts say the patient limits have restricted access to a valuable treatment tool, especially in rural areas where fewer doctors are certified to prescribe buprenorphine. According to the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), about 2.3 million people who are dependent on opioid pain medication or heroin could benefit from buprenorphine treatment, but many lack access to the drug because of limits on prescribers.

In a joint letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, and the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine stated that as “the number of people addicted to these opioids increases, there continues to be a shortage of physicians who are appropriately trained to treat them. The shortage severely complicates and impairs our ability to effectively address the epidemic, particularly in many rural and underserved areas of the nation.”  

While the goal of treating opioid addiction is laudable, little attention has been paid to the diversion of buprenorphine or the financial incentives that doctors have to prescribe it.

“This proposed rule directly expands opportunities for physicians who currently treat or who may treat patients with buprenorphine,” HHS says in an extensive analysis of the rule change. “We believe that this may translate to a financial opportunity for these physicians.”

HHS broadly estimates the added cost of treating new patients at between $43.5 million and $313 million in the first year alone. Many of the patents are low-income and the bills for treating them – about $4,300 annually for each patient – will often be paid by Medicaid. The Obama administration has asked Congress for an additional $1.1 billion to fight opioid abuse, with much of the money earmarked for addiction treatment.

The additional cost to taxpayers for expanding buprenorphine treatment, according to HHS, will be more than offset by the health benefits achieved by getting opioid addicts into treatment, which the agency generously estimates at $1.7 billion in the first year.

But some addiction experts have sounded a note of caution, warning that buprenorphine prescribing has already become a lucrative cash cow for some unscrupulous doctors.

“In northeast Tennessee, I am not aware of any buprenorphine provider that accepts insurance. Here buprenorphine clinics charge $100 cash at the time of service and require weekly visits for refills. This amounts to a cost to patients of over $5,000 yearly for medical services. This is a significant economic barrier for patients who typically have little or no income,” wrote Jack Woodside, MD, a professor at East Tennessee State University College of Medicine, in a public comment on the proposed rule change.

“From the provider's perspective, collecting $5,000 yearly from 100 patients amounts to an annual gross income of $500,000, with low overhead and no costs associated with billing insurance. This economic bonanza is causing many physicians to abandon traditional medical practices. A primary care physician remarked that he earns as much in one day in the buprenorphine clinic as he does the rest of the week in primary care.”

Buprenorphine Abuse

HHS acknowledges there could be “unintended negative consequences” to increased prescribing of buprenorphine – one of them being diversion.  Buprenorphine is a popular street drug, with addicts using it to either get high or to ease their withdrawal pains from illegal opioids like heroin. In 2014, the National Forensic Laboratory Information System ranked buprenorphine as the third most diverted opioid medication in the U.S. 

Some experts say the drug naltrexone is a better treatment option than buprenorphine. Naltrexone also reduces cravings, but it is not an opioid and is non-addicting.

“As I have been saying for longest time, buprenorphine is a double-edged sword. I contend greatly expanding the access of opioids contributes to the spread of addiction and a major factor in relapse,” said Percy Menzies, president of Assisted Recovery Centers of America, which operates four addiction treatment clinics in the St. Louis area.

“We are seeing more and more patients getting exposed to heroin and it is going to get worse. Sadly, the heroin addiction is being sustained by buprenorphine preparations.”

A 2013 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found a ten-fold increase in the number of emergency room visits involving buprenorphine. Over half of the hospitalizations were for the "non-medical" use of buprenorphine – meaning many users took the drug to get high.


“It is important to note that studies have found that the motivation to divert buprenorphine is often associated with lack of access to treatment or using the medication to manage withdrawal—as opposed to diversion for the medication's psychoactive effect.  Thus, the overall effect of this rulemaking on diversion is not clear,” HHS says in its analysis.

Clear or not, many of the same government regulators and anti-opioid activists who want to restrict access to opioid pain medication are some of the biggest supporters of expanding access to buprenorphine.

They include Andrew Kolodny, MD, the founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), a program funded by Phoenix House, which operates a chain of addiction treatment centers in 10 states and the District of Columbia. 

Kolodny, who is Phoenix House’s chief medical officer, has long advocated the use of buprenorphine, calling it “one of the most effective medications for opioid addiction” on C-SPAN last year. During the same interview, Kolodny likened other opioid pain medications to “heroin pills.”

Kolodny declined to comment to Pain News Network for this story.

Patient Limits “Indefensible”

Under the proposed rule change, only doctors who are certified in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry will be eligible for the expanded limit on buprenorphine prescribing. The rule changes also favor physicians in larger “qualified practices” – excluding many primary care physicians and other doctors who don’t offer additional therapies such as addiction counseling.

HHS is accepting public comment on the rule change until the end of this month. The vast majority of the nearly 300 comments received so far are from doctors, including many who are angry that the restrictions on buprenorphine aren’t being loosened further:

“The current limit is indefensible. There are not enough doctors now who are willing to deal with addicted patients, there is no need to further limit which doctors can treat more patients. The goal should be to get as many doctors as possible treating as many patients as they can comfortably handle,” wrote Jon Robertson, MD.

“We should have an immediate increase in the number of opiate addicts/heroin addicts we can treat with buprenorphine. We should have an unlimited number of patients we can treat,” said Peter Rogers, MD. 

“Why is it that I can give 10,000 patients OxyContin, yet I cannot meet the need in my community to treat addiction? No other specialty of medicine, no other physician, has any limit on any prescribing, especially during an epidemic,” wrote Anne Pylkas, MD.  “I am not a thief, I am not a charlatan or a quack. I am not a pill mill. I take insurance. I do not make millions on the backs of the helpless.”

 “It makes no sense to limit physicians to an arbitrary number of patients that can be treated to get the patients out of opiate addiction,” wrote Raymond Moy, MD. “Instead of making it hard to treat opiate addicts, why don't you make it harder to create opiate addicts? Make all these regulations apply to doctors prescribing opiates.”

“I practice in a rural area with a shortage of physicians to treat opioid addiction. My staff is capable of treating many more than 100 patients, so our contributions to the community's health are hampered by the current limits,” said Nels Kloster, MD, who runs a treatment center in Vermont. “There are many more persons seeking this treatment, but we have to turn them away due to this artificial restriction to our services.”

Only a few commenters warned that buprenorphine is already widely available on the black market and some doctors are likely to abuse the system.

“While it seems logical that increasing the patient limit would increase the ability to get people into the system, it does have some very serious downsides,” wrote Karl Hafner. “Several of these providers (at least in our area) are what most would consider pill mills. This only puts more medication on the street for abuse.

"By increasing the limit you will move physicians from doing this as part of a practice to just doing Suboxone and they will become pill mills. Do not increase the cap unless it is tied to treatment programs. There are plenty of providers.”

In a recent column in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice, one expert also warned of unintended consequences if the cap on buprenorphine prescribing is raised.

“Buprenorphine is an effective treatment for opioid use disorder; however, with increased access and availability, its abuse and diversion may be inevitable,” warned Daryl Shorter, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Baylor College of Medicine.

“This real-world, almost paradoxical, phenomenon demonstrates the complexity inherent in the treatment of addictive disorders -- a medication intended to treat substance use disorder that has its own abuse potential, upon gaining popularity and increased availability, will inevitably be explored by drug abusers for reward and reinforcement purposes.”