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.

Vaping, Opioid Addiction Accelerate Coronavirus Risks, Says NIDA Director

Dr. Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse, details how emerging science points to added challenges for these patient populations and the public health system.

In 2018, opioid overdoses claimed about 47,000 American lives. Last year, federal authorities reported that 5.4 million middle and high school students vaped. And just two months ago, about 2,800 cases of vaping-associated lung injuries resulted in hospitalizations; 68 people died.

Until mid-March, these numbers commanded attention. But as the coronavirus death toll climbs and the economic costs of attempting to control its spread wreak havoc, the public health focus is now dramatically different.

In the background, though, these other issues — the opioid epidemic and vaping crisis — persist in heaping complications on an overwhelmed public health system.

It is creating a distinctly American problem, said Dr. Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Volkow spoke with Kaiser Health News about the emerging science around COVID-19’s relationship to vaping and to opioid use disorder, as well as how these underlying epidemics could increase people’s risks. Her remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: We’ve already been experiencing two epidemics at once — vaping and the opioid crisis — and now we’re in the midst of a third. Does that change the nature of addressing the coronavirus in the United States?

It makes a different kind of situation than we see abroad. It forces us as a country to be urgently multitasking, to focus on the urgent needs of COVID while not ignoring the other epidemics devastating America. That’s certainly challenging.

Q: What is the evidence around the relationship between vaping and the coronavirus?

Because of the recency, there’s no data to show if there are differences in outcomes between people who vape and people who do not vape. There’s no reported scientific evidence. We will start seeing it.

We know from all the cases of acute lung injury that vaping, particularly certain combinations of chemicals that were related to vaping of THC, actually led to death. The cause of death was pulmonary dysfunction. We know from animal experiments that vaping itself — not even giving any drugs with it — can produce inflammatory changes in the lung.

We already know for COVID that, with comorbid conditions — particularly those that affect the lungs, the heart, the immune system — [patients] are more likely to have negative outcomes.

One can predict an association. In the meantime, because of the data that already exist, we should be very cautious. The prudent thing is to strongly advise individuals who are vaping to stop.

Q: Young people so far appear to have lower risks of COVID complications. Does vaping change that?

We know there have been fatalities among young people. One very important area of research is to try to understand the specific vulnerabilities among young people.

Why would you want to risk it when you already know vaping produces inflammatory changes in the lungs? We know in medicine, a tissue that has suffered harm is more vulnerable.

The big centers where you are observing the rise in COVID-19 cases, that’s where you are more likely to see the comorbidity of vaping.

It’s young people that are mostly vaping, but also older people, many of whom otherwise would be smoking tobacco. [Smoking] also raises the risk. Even though the samples have not been large enough, overall, smokers have done worse than nonsmokers when they have COVID.

Q: Let’s talk about opioid use disorder. What kind of comorbidities are we starting to see between opioid use disorder and COVID-19?

People who have opioid use disorder are also likely to be smokers. Smoking itself increases harm to your lungs.

We do know that opioids actually are immunosuppressants. This has been extensively studied. Nicotine also can disrupt immunity and actually impair the capacity of the cell to respond to viral infections.

One of the things opioids do is they depress your respiration. If it’s severe enough, they stop breathing. That’s what leads to death.

Whether you overdose or not, when you are taking opioids, the frequency of your breathing is down, and the oxygen in your blood tends to be lower.

The [COVID] infection targets the respiratory tissues in the lungs. It interferes with the capacity to transfer oxygen into the blood.

If you get COVID and you are taking opioids, the physiological consequences are going to be much worse. You’re not only going to have the effects of the virus itself, but you’ll have the depressive effects of opioids in the respiratory system [and] in the brain that lead to much less circulation in the lungs.

Q: What about other supports for people in recovery?

Community support systems like syringe exchange programs are closing. Methadone clinics are closing. If they’re not closing, they’re unable to process the same number of patients — because the staff is getting sick or the place where the methadone clinic was does not allow for so many people. Public transportation is not available for people to attend their methadone clinics.

We’re also hearing from our investigators they have observed a significant reduction in the capacity of the health care system to initiate people on medication for opioid use disorder — especially buprenorphine. Many of the buprenorphine initiations were done in health care facilities that are saturated with COVID.

Q: What’s happening to address those problems?

If in the past, if you were a physician or a nurse practitioner and you wanted to initiate someone on buprenorphine, the laws were that you needed to see that person physically. That’s changed. It’s now possible you can initiate someone on buprenorphine through telehealth. That’s incredibly valuable.

There’s extended reimbursement for telehealth, which expands access to treatment. There are also apps that have been created that provide individuals who have addiction [access] to mentors or coaches, as well as access to therapies and group therapies.

That is one of the aspects that has actually been accelerated by the COVID crisis. These may facilitate treatment into the future, even when COVID’s no longer there.

Coronavirus Crisis Opens Access To Online Opioid Addiction Treatment

Under the national emergency, the government has waived a law that required patients to have an in-person visit with a physician before they could be prescribed drugs that help quell withdrawal symptoms, such as Suboxone. Now they can get those prescriptions via a phone call or videoconference with a doctor. That may give video addiction therapy a kick-start.

[UPDATED on April 28]

Opioid addiction isn’t taking a break during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the U.S. response to the viral crisis is making addiction treatment easier to get.

Under the national emergency declared by the Trump administration in March, the government has suspended a federal law that required patients to have an in-person visit with a physician before they could be prescribed drugs that help quell withdrawal symptoms, such as Suboxone. Patients can now get those prescriptions via a phone call or videoconference with a doctor.

Addiction experts have been calling for that change for years to help expand access for patients in many parts of country that have shortages of physicians eligible to prescribe these medication-assisted treatments. A federal report in January found that 40% of U.S. counties don’t have a single health care provider approved to prescribe buprenorphine, an active ingredient in Suboxone.

A 2018 law called for the new policy, but regulations were never finalized.

“I wish there was another way to get this done besides a pandemic,” said Dr. David Kan, chief medical officer of Bright Heart Health, a Walnut Creek, California, company. It has recently started working with insurers and health providers to help addicted patients get therapy and medications without having to leave their homes. He said he hopes the administration will make the changes permanent after the national emergency ends.

For years before the emergency regulations, Bright Heart — along with several other telemedicine counseling providers — began offering opioid addiction treatment and counseling via telemedicine, even if they couldn’t prescribe initial medication for addiction. Patients can renew prescriptions for drugs to deal with withdrawal symptoms, get drug-tested and meet with counselors for therapy.

When Nathan Post needed help overcoming a decade-long drug addiction, he went online in 2018 and used Bright Heart Health to connect to a doctor and weekly individual and group counseling sessions. He said the convenience is a big benefit.

“As an addict, it was easy to have excuses not to do stuff, but this was easy because I could just be in my living room and turn on my computer, so I had no reason to blow it off,” he said.

Post, 38, a tattoo artist who recently moved from New Mexico to Iowa City, Iowa, was addicted to Suboxone, the drug he was prescribed in 2009 to deal with an addiction to opioid pills.

Officials with the insurer Anthem said using Bright Heart’s telemedicine option has helped increase medication-assisted treatment for members with opioid drug abuse issues from California and nine other states from 16% to more than 30%. While fewer than 5% of Anthem patients seeking addiction treatment use telemedicine, the company expects the option to become more common.

Bright Heart Health officials say one barometer of the effectiveness of the care is that 90% of patients are still in treatment after 30 days and 65% after 90 days — far higher than with traditional treatment.

Several insurers — including Aetna, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies like Anthem across the country — have begun covering the telemedicine addiction service.

Dr. Miriam Komaromy, medical director of Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction, said there are some downsides to virtual care.

“I think therapists and providers do worry whether it provides the same level of engagement with the patient and whether it’s possible to gauge someone’s sincerity and level of motivation as easily over a camera as in person,” she said.

But she predicted telemedicine service will grow because of the tremendous need to broaden access to mental health and addiction counseling. “Too often the default is no counseling for patients,” she said. “This gives us another set of tools.”

Patients can also have trouble finding a doctor who is eligible to prescribe medication to help treat addiction. Physicians are required to get a federal license to prescribe Suboxone and other controlled substances that help patients with opioid addictions and can write only limited numbers of prescriptions each month. Many doctors hesitate to seek that qualification.

A few small studies have found that patients are as likely to stay with telemedicine treatment as with in-person care for drug addiction. But no studies have determined whether one type of therapy is more effective.

Telemedicine does have its limits — and is not right for everyone, particularly patients who require more intensive inpatient care or who lack easy internet access, Komaromy said.

Premera Blue Cross and Blue Shield officials said they are partnering with Boulder Care, a digital recovery program based in Portland, Oregon, to help customers in rural Alaska. “Telemedicine is a unique way for someone to go through treatment in a discreet manner,” said Rick Abbott, a Premera vice president.

Nathan Post, a tattoo artist living in Iowa City, Iowa, used a telemedicine service to help overcome his addiction to Suboxone. “This was easy because I could just be in my living room and turn on my computer, so I had no reason to blow it off,” he says. (Courtesy of Nathan Post)

While telemedicine has been growing in popularity for physical medicine, some people may still be reluctant to use it for drug addiction.

There are also concerns that allowing providers to prescribe controlled substances without meeting patients in person could increase the risks of fraud.

“There is a fear around this that there may be some rogue providers who make a lot of money off addiction and will do it stealthily on the internet,” said Dr. Alyson Smith, an addiction medical specialist with Boulder Care. “While that is a small risk, we have to compare it to the huge benefit of expanding treatment that will save lives.”

Smith said she doesn’t notice a big difference in treating patients for drug addiction in her office compared with on a video screen. She can still see patients’ pupils to make sure they are dilated and ask them about how they are feeling — which can determine whether it’s appropriate to prescribe certain drugs. Dilated pupils are a sign of patients suffering from withdrawal from heroin and other drugs.

Dr. Dawn Abriel, who treated Post and previously directed a methadone clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said she can diagnose patients over video without issue.

“I can pick up an awful lot on the video,” particularly a patient’s body language, she said. “I think people open up to me more because they are sitting in their homes and in their place of comfort.”

In West Virginia, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid addiction epidemic, Highmark, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield company, started offering telehealth addiction coverage with Bright Heart Health in January. Highmark officials say a lack of providers, particularly in rural parts of the state, meant that many of the insurer’s members had difficulty finding the help they need.

Dr. Caesar DeLeo, vice president and executive medical director of strategic initiatives for Highmark, said the insurer was having problems getting customers into care. Only about a third of members with addiction issues were receiving treatment, he said.

“We needed to address the crisis with a new approach,” DeLeo said. “This will give people more options and give primary care doctors who do not want to prescribe Suboxone another place to refer patients.”

DeLeo said patients will also be referred to Bright Heart in hospital emergency rooms.

Dr. Paul Leonard, an emergency doctor and medical director for Workit Health, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, company offering telemedicine treatment and counseling programs, said many patients who turn to ERs for addiction treatment get little help finding counseling. With online therapy, patients can sign up while still in the ER.

“We’ve built a better mousetrap,” Leonard said.

Telemedicine addiction providers said they and their patients are getting more accustomed to virtual care.

“There are always times you wish you could reach out and hold someone’s hand, and you can’t do that,” said Boulder’s Smith. “But we feel like we are more skilled at a virtual hand-holding and really connect with people and they feel well supported in return.”

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.

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.’”