Addiction Treatment Proponents Urge Rural Clinicians to Pitch In by Prescribing Medication

The number of U.S. health care providers certified to prescribe buprenorphine more than doubled in the past four years, and treatment advocates hope to see that trend continue.

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Andrea Storjohann is glad to see that she’s becoming less of a rarity in rural America.

The nurse practitioner prescribes medication to dozens of patients trying to recover from addiction to heroin or opioid painkillers.

The general-practice clinic where she works, housed in a repurposed supermarket building, has no signs designating it as a place for people to seek treatment for drug addiction, which is how Storjohann wants it.

“You could be coming here for OB-GYN care. You could be coming here for a sore throat. You could be coming here for any number of reasons,” and no one in the waiting room would know the difference, she said.

Privacy is an important part of the treatment. And so is the medication Storjohann prescribes: buprenorphine, which staves off cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms for people who have stopped misusing opioid drugs. The central Iowa clinic, owned by the nonprofit agency Primary Health Care, has offered buprenorphine since 2016. “We were kind of a unicorn in this part of the state,” Storjohann said, but that’s changing.

Unlike methadone, the traditional medication to wean people off heroin or other opioids, buprenorphine can be prescribed at primary care clinics and dispensed at neighborhood pharmacies. Federal and state authorities have encouraged more front-line health care professionals to prescribe Suboxone and other medications containing buprenorphine for patients trying to overcome opioid addiction. Federal regulators have made it easier for doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants to become certified to offer the service.

The opioid crisis has deepened in the past decade with the illicit distribution of fentanyl, a powerful, extremely addictive opioid. Its prevalence has complicated the use of medication to treat opioid addiction. Patients who have been misusing fentanyl can suffer severe withdrawal symptoms when they begin taking buprenorphine, so health practitioners must be careful when starting the treatment.

In Iowa, officials designated $3.8 million from the state’s initial share of opioid lawsuit settlement money for a University of Iowa program that helps health care providers understand how to use the medications.

Federal agencies are spending millions to expand access to medication to treat addictions, including in rural areas. The Health Resources and Services Administration, which aims to improve health care for underserved people, offers many of these grants.

Carole Johnson, the agency’s top administrator, said she hopes increased training on treating opioid addiction encourages health care providers to learn the latest ways to treat other kinds of addiction, including methamphetamine dependence and alcoholism, which plague many rural states. “We’re sensitizing people to substance use disorder writ large,” she told KHN.

In 2016, just 40% of rural counties nationwide had at least one health care provider certified to prescribe buprenorphine, according to a University of Washington study. That figure climbed to 63% by 2020, the study found.

The study credited the rise to changes in federal rules that allow nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other midlevel health care providers to prescribe buprenorphine. In the past, only physicians could do so, and many rural counties lacked doctors.

Buprenorphine is an opioid that pharmacies most often sell as a tablet or a film that both dissolve under the tongue. It does not cause the same kind of high as other opioid drugs do, but it can prevent the debilitating withdrawal effects experienced with those drugs. Without that help, many people relapse into risky drug use.

The idea of opioid “maintenance treatment” has been around for more than 50 years, mainly in the form of methadone. That drug is also an opioid that can reduce the chance of relapse into misusing heroin or painkillers. But the use of methadone for addiction treatment is tightly regulated, due to concerns that it can be abused.

Only specialized clinics offer methadone maintenance treatment, and most of them are in cities. Many patients starting methadone treatment are required to travel daily to the clinics, where staffers watch them swallow their medicine.

Federal regulators approved Suboxone in 2002, opening an avenue for addiction treatment in towns without methadone clinics.

Storjohann said buprenorphine offers a practical alternative for Marshalltown, a town of 27,000 people surrounded by rural areas.

The nurse practitioner spends about half her time working with patients who are taking medications to prevent relapse into drug abuse. The other half of her practice is mental health care. A recent appointment with patient Bonnie Purk included a bit of both.

Purk, 43, sat in a small exam room with the nurse practitioner, who asked about her life. Purk described family struggles and other stressors she faces while trying to abstain from abusing painkillers.

Storjohann asked whether Purk felt hopeless. “Or are you just frustrated?”

Purk thought for a moment. “I went through a week where I was just crying,” she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue. But she said she hasn’t been seriously tempted to relapse.

Storjohann praised her persistence. “You’re riding a roller coaster,” she said. “I think you need to give yourself some grace.”

Purk knows Suboxone is not a miracle cure. She has taken the medication for years, and twice relapsed into misusing pain pills. But she has avoided a relapse since spring, and she said the medication helps.

In an interview after her monthly appointment with Storjohann, Purk said the medicine dulls cravings and blocks withdrawal symptoms. She recalled terrible night sweats, insomnia, diarrhea, and jitters she suffered when trying to stop abusing pills without taking Suboxone.

“You focus on nothing but that next fix. ‘Where am I going to get it? How am I going to take it?’” she said. “You just feel like a train wreck — like you’ll die without it.”

Purk said mental health counseling and frequent drug tests have also helped her remain sober.

Patients can stay on buprenorphine for months or even years. Some skeptics contend it’s swapping one drug dependence for another, and that it should not be seen as a substitute for abstinence. But proponents say such skepticism is easing as more families see how the treatment can help people regain control over their lives.

Dr. Alison Lynch, a University of Iowa addiction medicine specialist, warned about the risks of fentanyl and buprenorphine in a recent lecture to health professionals in training.

Lynch explained that fentanyl remains in the body longer than other opioids, such as heroin. When someone with fentanyl in their system takes buprenorphine, it can cause a particularly harsh round of nausea, muscle pain, and other symptoms, she said. “It’s not dangerous. It’s just miserable,” she said, and it can discourage patients from continuing the medication.

Lynch noted drug dealers are lacing fentanyl into other drugs, so people don’t always realize they’ve taken it. “I just make the assumption that if people are using any drugs they bought on the street, it’s probably got fentanyl,” she said. Because of that, she said, she has been using smaller initial doses of buprenorphine and increasing the dosage more gradually than she used to.

Nationwide, the number of health professionals certified to prescribe buprenorphine has more than doubled in the past four years, to more than 134,000, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Efforts to expand access to the treatment come as drug overdose deaths have more than doubled in the U.S. since 2015, led by overdoses of fentanyl and other opioids.

Storjohann would like to see more general clinicians seek training and certification to prescribe buprenorphine at least occasionally. For example, she said, emergency room doctors could prescribe a few days’ worth of the medication for a patient who comes to them in crisis, then refer the patient to a specialist like her. Or a patient’s primary doctor could take over the buprenorphine treatment after an addiction treatment specialist stabilizes a patient.

Dr. Neeraj Gandotra, chief medical officer of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said he sees potential in expanding such arrangements, known as a “hub and spoke” model of care. Family practice providers who agree to participate would be assured that they could always send a patient back to an addiction treatment specialist if problems arose, he said.

Gandotra said he hopes more primary care providers will seek certification to prescribe buprenorphine.

Johnson, the Health Resources and Services Administration administrator, said states can also increase access to medication-assisted treatment by expanding their Medicaid programs, to offer health insurance coverage to more low-income adults. The federal government pays most of the cost of Medicaid expansion, but 11 states have declined to do so. That leaves more people uninsured, which means clinics are less likely to be reimbursed for treating them, she said.

Health care providers no longer are required to take special classes to obtain federal certification — called a “waiver” — to treat up to 30 patients with buprenorphine. But Lynch said even veteran health care providers could benefit from training on how to properly manage the treatment. “It’s a little daunting to start prescribing a medication that we didn’t get a lot of training about in medical school or PA school or in nursing school,” she said.

Federal officials have set up a public database of health care providers certified to offer buprenorphine treatment for addiction, but the registry lists only providers who agree to include their names. Many do not do so. In Iowa, only about a third of providers with the certification have agreed to be listed on the public registry, according to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.

Lynch speculated that some health care professionals want to use the medication to help current patients who need addiction treatment, but they aren’t looking to make it a major part of their practice.

Storjohann said some health care professionals believe addiction treatment would lead to frustration, because patients can repeatedly relapse. She doesn’t see it that way. “This is a field where people really want to get better,” she said. “It’s really rewarding.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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They Fell In Love Helping Drug Users. But Fear Kept Him From Helping Himself.

Sarah and Andy fell in love while working to keep drug users from overdosing. But when his own addiction reemerged, Andy’s fear of returning to prison kept him from the best treatment.

She was in medical school. He was just out of prison.

Sarah Ziegenhorn and Andy Beeler’s romance grew out of a shared passion to do more about the country’s drug overdose crisis.

Ziegenhorn moved back to her home state of Iowa when she was 26. She had been working in Washington, D.C., where she also volunteered at a needle exchange — where drug users can get clean needles. She was ambitious and driven to help those in her community who were overdosing and dying, including people she had grown up with.

“Many people were just missing because they were dead,” said Ziegenhorn, now 31. “I couldn’t believe more wasn’t being done.”

She started doing addiction advocacy in Iowa City while in medical school — lobbying local officials and others to support drug users with social services.

Beeler had the same conviction, born from his personal experience.

“He had been a drug user for about half of his life — primarily a longtime opiate user,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler spent years in and out of the criminal justice system for a variety of drug-related crimes, such as burglary and possession. In early 2018, he was released from prison. He was on parole and looking for ways to help drug users in his hometown.

He found his way to advocacy work and, through that work, found Ziegenhorn. Soon they were dating.

“He was just this really sweet, no-nonsense person who was committed to justice and equity,” she said. “Even though he was suffering in many ways, he had a very calming presence.”

People close to Beeler describe him as a “blue-collar guy” who liked motorcycles and home carpentry, someone who was gentle and endlessly curious. Those qualities could sometimes hide his struggle with anxiety and depression. Over the next year, Beeler’s other struggle, with opioid addiction, would flicker around the edges of their life together.

Eventually, it killed him.

People on parole and under supervision of the corrections system can face barriers to receiving appropriate treatment for opioid addiction. Ziegenhorn said she believes Beeler’s death is linked to the many obstacles to medical care he experienced while on parole.

About 4.5 million people are on parole or probation in the U.S., and research shows that those under community supervision are much more likely to have a history of substance use disorder than the general population. Yet rules and practices guiding these agencies can preclude parolees and people on probation from getting evidence-based treatment for their addiction.

A Shared Passion For Reducing Harm

From their first meeting, Ziegenhorn said, she and Beeler were in sync, partners and passionate about their work in harm reduction — public health strategies designed to reduce risky behaviors that can hurt health.

After she moved to Iowa, Ziegenhorn founded a small nonprofit called the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition. The group distributes the opioid-overdose reversal drug naloxone and other free supplies to drug users, with the goal of keeping them safe from illness and overdose. The group also works to reduce the stigma that can dehumanize and isolate drug users. Beeler served as the group’s coordinator of harm reduction services.

“In Iowa, there was a feeling that this kind of work was really radical,” Ziegenhorn said. “Andy was just so excited to find out someone was doing it.”

Meanwhile, Ziegenhorn was busy with medical school. Beeler helped her study. She recalled how they used to take her practice tests together.

“Andy had a really sophisticated knowledge of science and medicine,” she said. “Most of the time he’d been in prison and jails, he’d spent his time reading and learning.”

Beeler was trying to stay away from opioids, but Ziegenhorn said he still used heroin sometimes. Twice she was there to save his life when he overdosed. During one episode, a bystander called the police, which led to his parole officer finding out.

“That was really a period of a lot of terror for him,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler was constantly afraid the next slip — another overdose or a failed drug test — would send him back to prison.

An Injury, A Search For Relief

A year into their relationship, a series of events suddenly brought Beeler’s history of opioid use into painful focus.

It began with a fall on the winter ice. Beeler dislocated his shoulder — the same one he’d had surgery on as a teenager.

“At the emergency room, they put his shoulder back into place for him,” Ziegenhorn said. “The next day it came out again.”

She said doctors wouldn’t prescribe him prescription opioids for the pain because Beeler had a history of illegal drug use. His shoulder would dislocate often, sometimes more than once a day.

“He was living with this daily, really severe constant pain — he started using heroin very regularly,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler knew what precautions to take when using opioids: Keep naloxone on hand, test the drugs first and never use alone. Still, his use was escalating quickly.

A Painful Dilemma 

The couple discussed the future and their hope of having a baby together, and eventually Ziegenhorn and Beeler agreed: He had to stop using heroin.

They thought his best chance was to start on a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for opioid addiction, such as methadone or buprenorphine. Methadone is an opioid, and buprenorphine engages many of the same opioid receptors in the brain; both drugs can curb opioid cravings and stabilize patients. Studies show daily maintenance therapy with such treatment reduces the risks of overdose and improves health outcomes.

But Beeler was on parole, and his parole officer drug-tested him for opioids and buprenorphine specifically. Beeler worried that if a test came back positive, the officer might see that as a signal that Beeler had been using drugs illegally.

Ziegenhorn said Beeler felt trapped: “He could go back to prison or continue trying to obtain opioids off the street and slowly detox himself.”

He worried that a failed drug test — even if it was for a medication to treat his addiction — would land him in prison. Beeler decided against the medication.

A few days later, Ziegenhorn woke up early for school. Beeler had worked late and fallen asleep in the living room. Ziegenhorn gave him a kiss and headed out the door. Later that day, she texted him. No reply.

She started to worry and asked a friend to check on him. Not long afterward, Beeler was found dead, slumped in his chair at his desk. He’d overdosed.

“He was my partner in thought, and in life and in love,” Ziegenhorn said.

It’s hard for her not to rewind what happened that day and wonder how it could have been different. But mostly she’s angry that he didn’t have better choices.

“Andy died because he was too afraid to get treatment,” she said.

Beeler was services coordinator for the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, a group that works to help keep drug users safe. A tribute in Iowa City after his death began, “He died of an overdose, but he’ll be remembered for helping others avoid a similar fate.”(Courtesy of Sarah Ziegenhorn)

How Does Parole Handle Relapse? It Depends

It’s not clear that Beeler would have gone back to prison for admitting he’d relapsed and was taking treatment. His parole officer did not agree to an interview.

But Ken Kolthoff, who oversees the parole program that supervised Beeler in Iowa’s First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, said generally he and his colleagues would not punish someone who sought out treatment because of a relapse.

“We would see that that would be an example of somebody actually taking an active role in their treatment and getting the help they needed,” said Kolthoff.

The department doesn’t have rules prohibiting any form of medication for opioid addiction, he said, as long as it’s prescribed by a doctor.

“We have people relapse every single day under our supervision. And are they being sent to prison? No. Are they being sent to jail? No,” Kolthoff said.

But Dr. Andrea Weber, an addiction psychiatrist with the University of Iowa, said Beeler’s reluctance to start treatment is not unusual.

“I think a majority of my patients would tell me they wouldn’t necessarily trust going to their [parole officer],” said Weber, assistant director of addiction medicine at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. “The punishment is so high. The consequences can be so great.”

Weber finds probation and parole officers have “inconsistent” attitudes toward her patients who are on medication-assisted treatment.

“Treatment providers, especially in our area, are still very much ingrained in an abstinence-only, 12-step mentality, which traditionally has meant no medications,” Weber said. “That perception then invades the entire system.”

Attitudes And Policies Vary Widely

Experts say it’s difficult to draw any comprehensive picture about the availability of medication for opioid addiction in the parole and probation system. The limited amount of research suggests that medication-assisted treatment is significantly underused.

“It’s hard to quantify because there are such a large number of individuals under community supervision in different jurisdictions,” said Michael Gordon, a senior research scientist at the Friends Research Institute, based in Baltimore.

A national survey published in 2013 found that about half of drug courts did not allow methadone or other evidence-based medications used to treat opioid use disorder.

A more recent study of probation and parole agencies in Illinois reported that about a third had regulations preventing the use of medications for opioid use disorder. Researchers found the most common barrier for those on probation or parole “was lack of experience by medical personnel.”

Faye Taxman, a criminology professor at George Mason University, said decisions about how to handle a client’s treatment often boil down to the individual officer’s judgment.

“We have a long way to go,” she said. “Given that these agencies don’t typically have access to medical care for clients, they are often fumbling in terms of trying to think of the best policies and practices.”

Increasingly, there is a push to make opioid addiction treatment available within prisons and jails. In 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections started allowing all three FDA-approved medications for opioid addiction. That led to a dramatic decrease in fatal opioid overdoses among those who had been recently incarcerated.

Massachusetts has taken similar steps. Such efforts have only indirectly affected parole and probation.

“When you are incarcerated in prison or jail, the institution has a constitutional responsibility to provide medical services,” Taxman said. “In community corrections, that same standard does not exist.”

Taxman said agencies may be reluctant to offer these medications because it’s one more thing to monitor. Those under supervision are often left to figure out on their own what’s allowed.

“They don’t want to raise too many issues because their freedom and liberties are attached to the response,” she said.

Richard Hahn, a researcher at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management who consults on crime and drug policy, said some agencies are shifting their approach.

“There is a lot of pressure on probation and parole agencies not to violate people just on a dirty urine or for an overdose” said Hahn, who is executive director of the institute’s Crime & Justice Program.

The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration calls medication-assisted treatment the “gold standard” for treating opioid addiction when used alongside “other psychosocial support.”

Addiction is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Sally Friedman, vice president of legal advocacy for the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit law firm based in New York City.

She said disability protections extend to the millions of people on parole or probation. But people under community supervision, Friedman said, often don’t have an attorney who can use this legal argument to advocate for them when they need treatment.

“Prohibiting people with that disability from taking medication that can keep them alive and well violates the ADA,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.