California’s New Attack On Opioid Addiction Hits Old Roadblocks

State officials in California have achieved some success in promoting the use of medication-assisted treatment for people with opioid addictions, but they are bumping up against familiar resistance and constraints.

Jennifer Stilwell, a 30-year-old mother of two young children, kicked heroin cold turkey five years ago, but she got hooked again last fall.

Stilwell, an accountant in Placerville, California, tried to quit a second time, but she couldn’t tolerate the sickening withdrawal symptoms. She resisted going to the emergency room because “I thought they’d treat me like a drug addict and not a patient in pain,” she said.

Instead, she kept smoking heroin to keep the agony at bay. Then, in February, a county mental health worker told her about a new program that promised stigma-free treatment for her addiction.

She went to the ER at Marshall Medical Center in Placerville, where a doctor put her on buprenorphine, one of three drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) of people with opioid dependency.

Her ongoing treatment includes intensive counseling and social support, providing what is known in the recovery field as “whole person” therapy.

“It’s still early in my battle,” Stilwell said. “But my withdrawals are gone. Now I can concentrate on being a mother.”

Marshall is one of a growing number of health care institutions across California that offer medication-assisted treatment with funding and support from the state’s MAT Expansion Project, which started in 2018 and is financed by $265 million in federal grants.

Numerous studies have shown that relapse and overdose rates are lower among opioid users who get MAT than those who don’t. From 2016 to 2018, for example, the overdose death rate in Humboldt County — one of California’s highest ― dropped by about half, which officials attributed in large part to the MAT Expansion Project.

In February, California’s Department of Health Care Services, which administers the project, touted its success, reporting that it has provided care for 22,000 previously untreated Californians with opioid addictions and created 650 new locations where patients can receive MAT.

But the number of new people brought into treatment is only a small fraction of those who need it. In 2019, more than half a million Californians with an opioid use disorder lacked access to treatment, according to a study by the Urban Institute.

The state effort faces many of the same obstacles that have hindered wider acceptance of MAT for years: the stigma of addiction, federal regulations that depress the number of MAT providers, and hostility in some corners of the treatment community to the very notion of using drugs to combat drug addiction.

Moreover, the addiction treatment industry has become a magnet in recent years for unscrupulous operators who aggressively recruit clients, eyes fixed on the dollar signs rather than on evidence-based treatments such as MAT.

Now there’s another, hopefully temporary, challenge. The COVID-19 crisis and related social-distancing measures are forcing MAT practitioners to scramble for new ways to accommodate patients, said Eric Hill, a “substance navigator” at Marshall Medical Center who helps guide patients through their MAT treatment.

Hill said MAT patients entering the program through emergency rooms are now given prescriptions for up to a month, rather than a week. He said he is following up with clients by phone rather than in person, and he and others are trying to arrange video calls between doctors and patients for prescription renewals.

The state program seeks to broaden access to MAT by launching or enhancing treatment programs at ERs, hospitals, primary care clinics, residential treatment programs, county mental health centers, jails and drug courts. Training more doctors to provide MAT is also a pillar of the campaign.

But patients who take anti-addiction drugs can have difficulty finding housing and recovery therapy, which are integral to their treatment. They are often shunned by groups adhering to traditional 12-step theories of sobriety that require participants to be free of drugs — including MAT drugs.

“MAT patients will say that the treatment was working. They were just starting to feel better, going to support groups, back at their jobs, but they had a hard time finding a place to live,” said Hill.

Many patients who stop taking their MAT drugs in order to get a roof over their heads have relapsed, Hill said.

Marlies Perez, a division chief at the state health care department, said the agency “is taking a strong stand against such stigma that prevents patients from their continued recovery.” Through its media campaign, Choose Change California, it seeks to alter perceptions within the recovery community and persuade more doctors and patients to embrace MAT.

The state expansion project puts a strong emphasis on building MAT capacity in emergency rooms, where opioid users often face suspicion.

Of the 320 acute care hospitals with emergency rooms statewide, 52 currently offer MAT. In those hospitals, staff members like Hill help patients get the care they need, including the psychological and social dimensions. Health care department officials say they plan to quadruple the number of participating hospitals to more than 200 over the next few years.

(Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Stilwell)

Opioid misuse is not nearly as deadly in California as in the rest of the U.S., even though the rise of fentanyl has begun to cause bigger problems in the Golden State.

In 2018, the rate of opioid overdose deaths in California stood at 5.8 per 100,000 residents, far below the national average of 14.6 per 100,000. In some rural counties of California, however, opioid death rates exceed the national average. The two states with the highest rates were West Virginia, at 42.4 per 100,000, and Delaware at 39.3.

Another obstacle to MAT expansion, one squarely in the sights of California health authorities, is that many doctors are hesitant to participate because they must undergo federally mandated training for a waiver that allows them to prescribe buprenorphine.

“Doctors can prescribe OxyContin with abandon but not buprenorphine, which has been shown to be helpful to opioid addicts,” said Dr. Aimee Moulin, a director at the California Bridge Program, which helps administer the state’s MAT program.

Buprenorphine is less powerful and less likely to cause fatal overdoses than methadone, another drug commonly used to fight opioid addiction. And doctors who get the waiver for buprenorphine can prescribe it in their offices, while methadone must be administered in federally certified treatment programs.

The state’s health care department said the expansion project has thus far trained 395 new MAT prescribers. But as of July 2019, just 3.2% of prescribers in the state were authorized to prescribe buprenorphine, according to the Urban Institute study.

Dr. Peter Liepmann, a Pasadena-based family physician with an interest in addiction medicine, said it can be difficult to find a buprenorphine prescriber. Not long ago, when he was thinking about opening a practice in Glendale, California, he consulted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) listings of physicians who offer MAT.

“If you were looking for somebody to dispense buprenorphine and you called people on that list, you would have come up with one doctor who ran a cash-only, no-insurance practice, and he was very expensive,” Liepmann said.

The state’s Perez said some doctors may not fully understand the benefits of MAT because medical schools devote little time to addiction training. Another element of the MAT project, she said, is to fund a substance-use-disorder curriculum at training hospitals.

Perez counseled patience: “We didn’t get into this opioid dependency situation overnight, and we’re not going to find a total solution overnight either.”

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Readers And Tweeters Dive Into Debate Over ‘Medicare For All’

Kaiser Health News gives readers a chance to comment on a recent batch of stories.

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.


Savings For All?

Your criticism about former Vice President Joe Biden’s “Medicare for All” cost estimates is spot-on but leaves out important savings (“KHN & PolitiFact HealthCheck: Would ‘Medicare For All’ Cost More Than U.S. Budget? Biden Says So. Math Says No,” Feb. 14). Under Biden’s plan, private insurance stays intact, meaning there are premiums and point-of-service costs that do not appear as taxes but are added to the nation’s health care expense. Medicare for All, on the other hand, is zero at the point of service, meaning Americans would have no financial qualms seeking comprehensive care. Public options add bureaucratic costs, are subject to personal income fluctuations and have deductibles and copays. We depend on organizations like yours to present the full picture. Here’s hoping you will, in the public’s interest.

― Dr. Donald Green, Pennington, New Jersey


— Manuel Freire, Fort Lauderdale, Florida


For Alzheimer’s Patients Like Me, Knowing Is Half The Battle

I want to thank Judith Graham for her piece discussing the uncertainty and fear patients feel when faced with the potential onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia (“Stalked By The Fear That Dementia Is Stalking You,” Feb. 21).

As an Alzheimer’s patient with a confirmed diagnosis, I know all too well how unsettling it can be to suffer from cognitive decline without knowing the nature of your condition. For me, it started with little things like forgetting a name or misplacing a set of house keys. Still, it wasn’t until I applied to participate in an Alzheimer’s clinical trial and received a PET scan identifying amyloid protein buildup in my brain did I definitively know I had the disease.

Like many of the patients discussed in the article, dealing with these early warning signs can be an enormous source of anxiety — especially when it’s unclear whether or not the cause is Alzheimer’s or another cognitive issue. That’s why getting a precise diagnosis was such a critical step for myself and my husband, Jim.

As mentioned in the article, amyloid PET scans are not fully covered by Medicare, a critically important detail, which I believe must be remedied. As the prevalence of Alzheimer’s continues to grow as our population ages, expanding access to diagnostic tools that can identify this disease will become ever more critical. I remain optimistic that our representatives in Washington can come together and address this issue ― so more patients like me don’t have to live under a cloud of uncertainty.

— Geri Taylor, New York City


An Infusion Of Debt

Glad you are pointing this out (“Patients Stuck With Bills After Insurers Don’t Pay As Promised,” Feb. 7). It’s happening again, post-Affordable Care Act. For us, it’s my husband’s battle with multiple sclerosis, but more the battle with his insurer. It approved his treatment cost for a new drug, sent a letter saying everything was covered. Then, lo and behold, we get a bill for $4,000 that it said we had to pay. No reason or rationale given. So now we are on a payment plan with the hospital that gave him his infusion. Not sure why we even bother with paying our premiums in the first place, considering the out-of-pocket expense and worthlessness of preapprovals; it doesn’t really matter. Please keep writing these articles ― it helps.

― Margaret Paez, Los Angeles


When Choice Of Hospitals Is A Life-Or-Death Choice

Thanks so much for your coverage of death-with-dignity situations (“Terminally Ill, He Wanted Aid-In-Dying. His Catholic Hospital Said No,” Jan. 29). We all need to know as much as possible about the institutions and structures that may prevent patients from choosing a dignified death. Please consider linking to the Catholic ethics rules so readers can read them for themselves. Please make us a map of Colorado showing the hospitals that are abiding by these rules. Please explain that emergency services in rural areas may have no choice but to take patients to the nearest (possibly non-law-abiding) hospital. Rewired has written about Eastern hospitals where serious pregnancy issues were poorly treated by Catholic hospitals.

Many of us do not understand that hospital choice may become a life choice and doctor choice may also become a life choice. And, please, also feature regularly and loudly all the practitioners and organizations being formed to protect patients’ legal right to die. Thanks so much for the good work that you do.

― Diane Curlette, Boulder, Colorado


Taking Pains Over Statistics

In stories about the opioid crisis (“No Quick Fix: Missouri Finds Managing Pain Without Opioids Isn’t Fast Or Easy,” Feb. 13), I always see total death statistics but never a breakdown of how many of the fatalities represent responsible legal users vs. illegal users.

A lot of us elderly folks have a very hard time getting our pain meds nowadays. Thirty used to last me five to seven months, and I took them only when I couldn’t get to sleep due to pain throughout my body. We have discussed it on our seniors’ webpage in our rural area and many of us used to get them. Overdoses and addiction aren’t the norm and aren’t even in the realm of our experiences. Why do we have to pay for others’ mistakes? They don’t outlaw cars even though many people die from wrecks caused by bad drivers!

― William Scriven, Valley Springs, California


— Nicolas Terry, Indianapolis


Collateral Damage From Insurers’ Dispute

When I read Brian Krans’ article about the Dignity-Cigna dispute (“Patients Caught In Crossfire Between Giant Hospital Chain, Large Insurer,” Feb. 6), I was reminded of my own situation: In California, Oscar dropped coverage for all UCLA care facilities in its Covered California (Affordable Care Act) plans, as of this year. I don’t know how many people use Oscar, but the UCLA system is a major health care provider here in West L.A. There’s no indication that there’s a dispute — this is represented as a final decision. UCLA is gone!

I figured I could get similar care from the Providence network, but my first choice for a primary care physician proved a bit odd: On our first visit, he presented at least four ideas that seem outside the medical mainstream. With some embarrassment, I asked for a different PCP. That physician ordered lab work but said no one in the building was authorized by Oscar to do blood draws, so I was sent to a facility in another city … which turned out to be out of business. I was finally referred to a third facility, which turned out to be more convenient than the last ― but the inconvenient run-around for something as simple as a blood draw and the penny-pinching by my insurance company do not bode well for the future of American medicine.

This is the second disruption I’ve had in insurance providers since the ACA began, and another indication that our current health care system is still very broken.

— Gary Davis, Los Angeles


— Scott Gordon, Fennimore, Wisconsin


Raising A Red Flag On Animal Rights Group

As a registered dietitian, I do not promote the keto diet. Mentioned in the article “As VA Tests Keto Diet To Help Diabetic Patients, Skeptics Raise Red Flags” (Feb. 3) is the group Physicians for Responsible Medicine, which is an extreme animal rights group with ties to PETA. About 3% of its members are physicians. Attending a seminar on nutrition for cardiovascular disease, I was dismayed to see the speaker had ties to Physicians for Responsible Medicine. After hearing about all the terrible effects of eating animal products, when the speaker could no longer contain himself and shouted out, “You don’t eat dead animals, do you?” I walked out and called my professional association to complain. Please do not give credibility to this organization.

― Mary Lucius, Beavercreek, Ohio


— Nancy Coney, South Bend, Indiana


Price-Gouging At Its Core

I read your most recent story on surprise medical billing (“When Your Doctor Is Also A Lobbyist: Inside The War Over Surprise Medical Bills,” Feb. 12) and found it to be largely one-sided against physicians and, somewhat, hospitals. Although private equity certainly is an influence in the conversation, very little to any time was spent discussing the efforts of insurance companies to continually drive down reimbursements. Furthermore, when we look at Medicare rates, which insurance companies rates are based on, the actual reimbursement has not significantly increased over the past few decades when you account for inflation or the consumer price index. So to paint the picture that physicians are trying to gouge patients does not seem very fair. While there are always a few bad apples and opportunists, the majority of physicians simply want to be paid fairly. Remember: Over the past few years, insurance companies have reported record profits — billions per fiscal quarter. Why are we not talking about why more of our premiums are not going to the provision of health care and instead to shareholders? I think the article fails to paint the entire picture for a lay audience. Nowhere does it report the amount of money spent on lobbying by the insurance industry.

― Dr. Shamie Das, Atlanta


— Gene Christian, Memphis, Tennessee


Health Care’s High-Cost Formula Goes Beyond Drug Prices

What patients care about more than drug prices is how much they have to pay out-of-pocket for their critical medications (“Watch: Let’s Talk About Trump’s Health Care Policies,” Feb. 4). Because of high-deductible health plans and tiered formularies, what patients pay at the pharmacy counter often has less to do with the list price of the drugs they need and more to do with the design of their health benefits. It is especially troubling that high-value drugs for chronic conditions like diabetes are often subject to unaffordable cost sharing that hits disproportionately at the beginning of the benefit year. Employers and health plans need to exempt these drugs from high deductibles as now permitted by the IRS. The same goes for Medicare Part D, which hugely penalizes seriously ill patients at the start of each year when they have yet to reach the catastrophic threshold.

Clearly, the problem of high drug prices needs to be addressed, but this will require a systematic and comprehensive approach that is certain to be resisted by one vested interest or another. In the meantime, patients need immediate relief from unaffordable out-of-pocket costs. Some steps that should be taken immediately include exempting high-value care from plan deductibles and capping and smoothing out-of-pocket costs in Medicare Part D. Much, if not all, of the cost associated with these measures can be offset by not paying for low- and no-value care that costs billions per year.

― Daniel Klein, president & CEO of the Patient Access Network (PAN) Foundation, Washington, D.C.


Cause For Investigation

The example you give presents an illegal activity by the home health agency (“Why Home Health Care Is Suddenly Harder To Come By For Medicare Patients,” Feb. 3). At a minimum, that agency should have a complaint registered against them, if not investigated by the Office of the Inspector General. The agency lied about Medicare not covering the patient’s needs. And they should have had the patient sign an ABN/NOMNC (Advance Beneficiary Notice/Notice of Medicare Non-Coverage) and explained it to the patient as required, so he could choose to appeal with the Quality Improvement Organization (QIO) for coverage of medically necessary care.

Kaiser Health News needs to provide education for the elderly and families to make sure they don’t fall prey to this type of behavior. If the agency simply says “I don’t have the staff to cover you,” they are responsible to assist the patient in finding another agency. But they cannot elect to just stop providing a medically necessary service, just as they cannot keep seeing someone when it is not medically necessary. Key here is to get people to know their rights as a Medicare beneficiary.

― Edward Dieringer, Salt Lake City


— Tom Cassels, Arlington, Virginia


— Peg Graham, Washington, D.C.


Privacy Concern: I Lack Seamless Access To My Own Records

I work in a medical center and have taken HIPAA training repeatedly over the years. I have also noted the staggering amount of money spent on medical electronic records. Yet in four attempts over a 20-year period, I have yet to get my medical records sent from one doctor or practice to another. I could not get records of my husband’s hospital stay sent to his primary physician, dental records sent from one dentist to another and, this fall, the pertinent records when my rheumatologist changed practices. My insurance paid for blood tests four times a year and X-rays over a five-year period. I have contacted the facilities and submitted a complaint to HHS Office for Civil Rights, which appears to be the correct office.

I find it unacceptable that, with all the talk about how expensive medical care is, tests over time are not easily available to patients when requested. I read Kaiser Health News regularly and at least I feel informed about what can go wrong. Thank you.

— Susan Klimley, New York City


— Dr. Sarah Nguyen, Los Angeles