Pandemic Presents New Hurdles, And Hope, For People Struggling With Addiction

Relaxed regulations in response to the pandemic means more access to addiction treatment medications. But recovery programs are accepting fewer people, and the danger of overdose remains high.

Before Philadelphia shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Ed had a routine: most mornings he would head to a nearby McDonald’s to brush his teeth, wash his face and — when he had the money — buy a cup of coffee. He would bounce between homeless shelters and try to get a shower. But since businesses closed and many shelters stopped taking new admissions, Ed has been mostly shut off from that routine.

He’s still living on the streets.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t really sleep too much,” said Ed, who’s 51 and struggling with addiction. “Every four or five days I get a couple hours.”

KHN agreed not to use his last name because he uses illegal drugs.

Philadelphia has the highest overdose rate of any big city in America — in 2019, more than three people a day died of drug overdoses there, on average. Before the coronavirus began spreading across the United States, the opioid overdose epidemic was the biggest health crisis on the minds of many city officials and public health experts. The coronavirus pandemic has largely eclipsed the conversation around the opioid crisis. But the crisis still rages on despite business closures, the cancellation of in-person treatment appointments and the strain on many addiction resources in the city.

When his usual shelter wasn’t an option anymore, Ed tried to get into residential drug treatment. He figured that would be a good way to try to get back on his feet and, if nothing else, get a few good nights of rest. But he had contracted pinkeye, a symptom thought to be associated with the virus that leads to COVID-19, so the evaluation center didn’t want to place him in an inpatient facility until he’d gotten the pinkeye checked out. But he couldn’t see a doctor because he didn’t have a phone for a telehealth appointment.

“I got myself stuck, and I’m trying to pull everything back together before it totally blows up,” he said.

Rosalind Pichardo wants to help people in Ed’s situation. Before the pandemic, Pichardo would hit the streets of her neighborhood, Kensington, which has the highest drug overdose rate in Philadelphia. She’d head out with a bag full of snack bars, cookies and Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug.

She’d hand Narcan out to people using drugs, and people selling drugs — anyone who wanted it. Pichardo started her own organization, Operation Save Our City, which initially set out to work with survivors of gun violence in the neighborhood. When she realized that overdoses were killing people too, she began getting more involved with the harm reduction movement and started handing out Narcan through the city’s syringe exchange.

When Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order went into effect, Pichardo and others worried that more people might start using drugs alone, and that fewer first responders would be patrolling the streets or nearby and able to revive them if they overdosed.

So, Pichardo and other harm reduction activists gave out even more Narcan. A representative for Prevention Point Philadelphia, the group that operates a large syringe exchange program in the city, said that during the first month of the city’s stay-at-home order, they handed out almost twice as much Narcan as usual.

After the lockdowns and social distancing began, Pichardo worried that more people would be using drugs alone, leading to more overdoses. But Philadelphia’s fatal overdose rate during the pandemic remains about the same as it was this time last year. Pichardo said she thinks that’s evidence that flooding the streets with Narcan is working — that people are continuing to use drugs, and maybe even using more drugs, but that users are utilizing Narcan more often and administering it to one another.

That is the hope. But Pichardo said users don’t always have a buddy to keep watch, and during the pandemic first responders have seemed much more hesitant to intervene. For example, she recently administered Narcan to three people in Kensington who overdosed near a subway station, while two police officers stood by and watched. Before the pandemic, they would often be right there with her, helping.

To reverse the overdoses, Pichardo crouched over the people who she said had started turning blue as their oxygen levels dropped. She injected the Narcan into their noses, using a disposable plastic applicator. Normally, she would perform rescue breathing, too, but since the pandemic began she has started carrying an Ambu bag, which pumps air into a person’s lungs and avoids mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Among the three people, she said, it took six doses of Narcan to revive them. The police officers didn’t step in to help but did toss several overdose-reversal doses toward Pichardo as she worked.

“I don’t expect ’em to give ’em rescue breaths if they don’t want to, but at least administer the lifesaving drug,” Pichardo said.

In her work as a volunteer, she has reversed almost 400 overdoses, she estimated.

“There’s social distancing — to a limit,” Pichardo said, “I think when someone’s life is in jeopardy, they’re worth saving. You just can’t watch people die.”

Even before Philadelphia officially issued its stay-at-home order, city police announced they would stop making low-level arrests, including for narcotics. The idea was to reduce contact overall, help keep the jail population low and reduce the risk of the virus getting passed around inside. But Pichardo and other community activists said the decreased law enforcement emboldened drug dealers in the Kensington neighborhood, where open-air drug sales and use are common.

“You can tell they have everything down pat, from the lookout to the corner boys to the one actually holding the product — the one holding the product’s got some good PPE gear,” said Pichardo.

More dealers working openly on the street has led to more fights over territory, she added, which in turn has meant more violence. While overall crime in Philadelphia and other major cities has declined during the pandemic, gun violence has spiked.

Police resumed arrests at the beginning of May.

Now when she goes out to offer relief and hand out Narcan, Pichardo packs a few extra things in her bag of supplies: face masks, gloves and gun locks.

“It’s like the survival kit of the ’hood,” she said.

For those struggling with addiction who are ready to start recovery, newly relaxed federal restrictions have made it easier to get medications that curb opioid cravings and stem withdrawal. Several efforts are underway among Philadelphia-based public health groups and criminal justice advocacy organizations to give cellphones to people who are homeless or coming out of jail, so they can make a telehealth appointment and get quicker access to a prescription for those medicines.

During the pandemic, people taking medication-assisted treatment can renew their prescription every month instead of every week, which helps decrease trips to the pharmacy. It is too soon to know if more people are taking advantage of the new rules, and accessing medication-assisted treatment via telehealth, but if that turns out to be the case, many addiction medicine specialists argue the new rules should become permanent, even after the pandemic ends.

“If we find that these relaxed restrictions are bringing more people to the table, that presents enormous ethical questions about whether or not the DEA should reinstate these restrictive policies that they had going in the first place,” said Dr. Ben Cocchiaro, a physician who treats people with substance-use disorder.

Cocchiaro said the whole point of addiction treatment is to facilitate help as soon as someone is ready for it. He hopes if access to recovery can be made simpler during a pandemic, it can remain that way afterward.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WHYY, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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.

Listen: Missouri Efforts Show How Hard It Is To Treat Pain Without Opioids

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber was interviewed by KBIA’s Sebastián Martínez Valdivia to discuss the challenges Missouri faces in managing patients’ pain amid the opioid epidemic.

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber speaks with KBIA’s Sebastián Martínez Valdivia about the challenges Missouri faces in trying to treat chronic pain without opioids. Weber had reported that only about 500 of Missouri’s roughly 330,000 adult Medicaid beneficiaries used a new, alternative pain management plan to stem opioid overprescribing in the program’s first nine months. Meanwhile, 109,610 Missouri Medicaid patients received opioid prescriptions last year.

You can listen to the conversation on the KBIA website.

No Quick Fix: Missouri Finds Managing Pain Without Opioids Isn’t Fast Or Easy

In the first nine months of an alternative pain management program in Missouri, only a small fraction of the state’s Medicaid recipients have accessed the chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy meant to combat the overprescription of opioids.

ST. LOUIS — Missouri began offering chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy for Medicaid patients in April, the latest state to try an alternative to opioids for those battling chronic pain.

Yet only about 500 of the state’s roughly 330,000 adult Medicaid users accessed the program through December, at a cost of $190,000, according to Josh Moore, the Missouri Medicaid pharmacy director. While the numbers may reflect an undercount because of lags in submitting claims, the jointly funded federal-state program known in the state as MO HealthNet is hitting just a fraction of possible patients so far.

Meanwhile, according to the state, opioids were still being doled out: 109,610 Missouri Medicaid patients of all age groups received opioid prescriptions last year.

The going has been slow, health experts said, because of a slew of barriers. Such treatments are more time-consuming and involved than simply getting a prescription. A limited number of providers offer alternative treatment options, especially to Medicaid patients. And perhaps the biggest problem? These therapies don’t seem to work for everyone.

The slow rollout highlights the overall challenges in implementing programs aimed at righting the ship on opioid abuse in Missouri — and nationwide. To be sure, from 2012 to 2019, the number of Missouri Medicaid patients prescribed opioid drugs fell by more than a third — and the quantity of opioids dispensed by Medicaid dropped by more than half.

Still, opioid overdoses killed an estimated 1,132 Missourians in 2018 and 46,802 Americans nationally, according to the latest data available. Progress to change that can be frustratingly slow.

“The opioids crisis we got into wasn’t born in a year,” Moore said. “To expect we’d get perfect results after a year would be incredibly optimistic.”

Despite limited data on the efficacy of alternative pain management plans, such efforts have become more accepted, especially following a summer report of pain management best practices from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States such as Ohio and Oregon see them as one part of a menu of options aimed at curbing the opioid crisis.

St. Louis chiropractor Ross Mattox, an assistant professor at chiropractic school Logan University, sees both uninsured patients and those on Medicaid at the CareSTL clinic. He cheered Missouri’s decision to expand access, despite how long it took to get here.

“One of the most common things I heard from providers,” he said, “is ‘I want to send my patient to a chiropractor, but they don’t have the insurance. I don’t want to prescribe an opioid — I’d rather go a more conservative route — but that’s the only option I have.’”

And that can lead to the same tragic story: Someone gets addicted to opioids, runs out of a prescription and turns to the street before becoming another sad statistic.

“It all starts quite simply with back pain,” Mattox said.

Practical Barriers

While Missouri health care providers now have another tool besides prescribing opioids to patients with Medicaid, the multistep approaches required by alternative treatments create many more hoops than a pharmacy visit.

The physicians who recommend such treatments must support the option, and patients must agree. Then the patient must be able to find a provider who accepts Medicaid, get to the provider’s office even if far away and then undergo multiple, time-consuming therapies.

“After you see the chiropractor’s for one visit, it’s not like you’re cured from using opioids forever — it would take months and months and months,” Moore said.

The effort and cost that go into coordinating a care plan with multiple alternative pain therapies is another barrier.

“Covering a course of cheap opioid pills is different than trying to create a multidisciplinary individualized plan that may or may not work,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, noting that the scientific evidence of the efficacy of such treatments is mixed.

And then there’s the reimbursement issue for the providers. Corry Meyers, an acupuncturist in suburban St. Louis, does not accept insurance in his practice. But he said other acupuncturists in Missouri debate whether to take advantage of the new Medicaid program, concerned the payment rates to providers will be too low to be worthwhile.

“It runs the gamut, as everyone agrees that these patients need it,” Meyers stressed. But he said many acupuncturists wonder: “Am I going to be able to stay open if I take Medicaid?”

Structural Issues 

While helpful, plans like Missouri’s don’t address the structural problems at the root of the opioid crisis, Beletsky said.

“Opioid overutilization or overprescribing is not just a crisis in and of itself; it’s a symptom of broader structural problems in the U.S. health care system,” he said. “Prescribers reached for opioids in larger and larger numbers not just because they were being fooled into doing so by these pharmaceutical companies, but because they work really well for a broad variety of ailments for which we’re not doing enough in terms of prevention and treatment.”

Fixing some of the core problems leading to opioid dependence — rural health care “deserts” and the impact of manual labor and obesity on chronic pain — requires much more than a treatment alternative, Beletsky said.

And no matter how many alternatives are offered, he said, opioids will remain a crucial medicine for some patients.

Furthermore, while alternative pain management therapies may lessen opioid prescriptions, they do not address exploding methamphetamine addiction or other addiction crises leading to overdoses nationwide — even as a flood of funds pours in from the national and state level to fight these crises.

The Show-Me State’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage to more people under the Affordable Care Act also hampers overall progress, said Dr. Fred Rottnek, a family and addiction doctor who sits on the St. Louis Regional Health Commission as chair of the Provider Services Advisory Board.

“The problem is we relatively cover so few people in Missouri with Medicaid,” he said. “The denominator is so small that it doesn’t affect the numbers a whole lot.”

But providers like Mattox are happy that such alternative treatments are now an option, even if they’re available only for a limited audience.

He just wishes it had been done sooner.

“A lot of it has to do with politics and the slow gears of government,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s taken people dying — it’s taken enough of a crisis for people to open their eyes and say, ‘Maybe there’s a better way to do this.’”