Using Science to Address the Opioid Crisis in America

FROM THE BLOG OF NORA VOLKOW, MD
September 19, 2018

NIDA Banner Science of Abuse and Addiction

The public health emergency regarding opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose affects millions of Americans and requires innovative scientific solutions. Today, during National Prescription Opioid and Heroin Awareness Week, we are sharing news of an important step towards these solutions through the HEALing Communities Study—an integrated approach to test an array of interventions for opioid misuse and addiction in communities hard hit by the opioid crisis.

Six months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, a bold multi-agency effort to catalyze scientific discoveries to stem the opioid crisis. HEAL will support research across NIH, using $500,000 of fiscal year 2018 funds, to improve prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder and enhance pain management.

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Through HEAL, NIH will harness the power of science to bring new hope for people, families, and communities affected by this devastating crisis. The current menu of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions has not been fully implemented nationwide. An unacceptably low fraction – about one fifth — of people with opioid use disorder receive any treatment at all. Of those who do enter treatment, only about a third receive any medications—which are universally acknowledged to be the standard of care—as part of their treatment. However, even when medications are used as a component of treatment, the duration is typically shorter than clinically indicated, contributing to unacceptably high relapse rates within the first 6 months. 

To take on this challenge, as part of the broader HEAL initiative, NIH has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to launch the HEALing Communities Study. This study will evaluate the impact of implementing an integrated set of evidence based practices for prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders in select communities with high rates of opioid overdose mortality, with a focus on significantly reducing opioid overdose fatalities by 40%. Targeted areas for intervention include decreasing the incidence of opioid use disorder, increasing the number of individuals receiving medications for opioid use disorder treatment, increasing treatment retention beyond 6 months, receiving recovery support services, and expanding the distribution of naloxone.

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Toward this goal, today NIDA issued funding opportunities for cooperative agreements for components of the HEALing Communities Study: a data coordinating center and up to three research sites to measure the impact of integrating evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions for opioid misuse, opioid use disorder, opioid-related overdose events and fatalities across multiple settings, including primary care, behavioral health, and justice. We also encourage evidence-based interventions for prevention and treatment that involve community resources such as police departments, faith-based organizations, and schools, with a focus on rural communities and strong partnerships with state and local governments.

The evidence we generate though the HEALing Communities Study, the most ambitious implementation study in the addiction field to date, will help communities nationwide address the opioid crisis at the local level.  By testing interventions where they are needed the most, in close partnership with SAMHSA and other Federal partners, we will show how researchers, providers, and communities can come together and finally bring an end to this devastating public health crisis.

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

“I’ll Quit Tomorrow!”

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It is mind boggling how alcoholism impacts people from all cultures, races, socioeconomic class, gender, religion, profession, and academic background. Interestingly, all alcoholics are ultimately alike. The disease itself swallows up differences and creates a universal alcoholic profile. The personality changes that go with alcoholism are predictable and virtually inevitable.  Alcohol can precipitate the onset of a disease with a predictable, inexorable course. It can ultimately destroy the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental life of the sufferer. Alcoholism is typified by a progressive mental “mismanagement” and an increasing emotional distress that can reach suicidal proportions.

Hidden costs of alcoholism are not small. Alcohol-related expenses cost federal, state and local governments $223.5 billion. Of that amount, tax payers are footing the bill for $92.4 billion.

Drinking Was Fun, Once Upon a Time

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Early drinking is a mood-swinger, typically in a positive direction. It gives the drinker a warm, good feeling, that may lead to giddiness. When the effects wear off, the drinker feels normal. It does not take long to learn how to set the amount and select the mood. As the typical social drinker gets deeper into the booze, getting drunk begins to have a very different effect. Heavy drinking creates a sort of undertow that drags the drinker back beyond normal and into pain. This might be the point where euphoria is reached at a big cost—if it’s achieved at all. Now the booze is consumed in order to feel no pain. In other words, to get back to some degree of normal. This is the beginning of harmful alcohol dependence.

In addition to dependency, this phase also involves a rising emotional cost. We we see a significant and progressive deterioration of the personality of the alcoholic, and (eventually) a visible physical deterioration. Ultimately, the alcoholic’s whole emotional environment is torn to pieces and destroyed. Of course, most active alcoholics are in complete denial of the impending bottom.

There is now a progressive emotional cost for every single drink. The carefree days are gone, but the alcoholic is dimly aware of this fact at best. The rising cost is willingly paid. This is proof that dependency has become truly harmful. Of course, the drinker fails to comprehend the increasingly clear signs of destruction by alcohol. Frankly, at this point the alcoholic is learning to depend more and more on rationalization. Intellect begins to blindly defend against reason—indeed, against intervention. Eventually, the alcoholic will be completely out of touch with emotions. Internal dialog will become the soundtrack of an increasingly impenetrable defense system.

Denial is Not Just a River in Egypt

The tragedy is that rationalization actually works! This form of defense—which I employed constantly during my active addiction—continues to operate as the disease progresses. The alcoholic’s behavior will become increasingly bizarre, and the innate and unconscious ability to rationalize will be practiced to the point of perfection. The drinker finds it increasingly difficult to accept blame. Time passes, and the alcoholic condition worsens. Over a period of months and years the alcoholic’s self-image continues to wane. Ego strength ebbs. Feelings of self-worth sink low, and excessive drinking continues, producing painful and bizarre behavior. Eventually, emotional distress becomes a chronic condition. The drinker feels distress unconsciously even when not drinking.

Unfortunately, rationalization works. The tragedy is that this form of defense will continue to operate as the illness progresses.

Now, “mood swings” or personality changes are evidenced while drinking. The kind person becomes angry or hostile; the happy person becomes sad or morose; the gentle person becomes violent. Alcohol causes one’s guard to drop, and chronic unconscious negative feelings are laid bare. The drinker becomes truly self-destructive. All this drinking and emotional distress may lead to a vague but poignant feeling, I just might have a drinking problem. There is a general malaise so strong felt that desperate measures to escape are actually attempted. Geographical cure, a new job, divorce.

The Pathology of Alcohol Dependence

The final stages of alcoholism are close at hand. Continued excessive drinking and accompanying behavior bring on chronic suicidal feelings. I remember thinking many times, I should just go jump in the Susquehanna River! If the course of the disease is not interrupted, the end of all this is suicide—either slowly by continued drinking or in a direct manner. This is because as emotional distress mounts, and deterioration of the personality accelerates, these negative feelings are not clearly discernible. Quite the opposite is true: They are more effectively hidden.

A pathological use of alcohol can be measured by how the individual answers the following questions:

  • Have you ever drank early or first thing in the morning?
  • Have you ever drank alone?
  • Have you ever drank an entire fifth of alcohol in a day?
  • Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
  • Is there a growing anticipation of the welcome effects of alcohol?
  • Has the anticipation moved into the realm of preoccupation?
  • Do you hide your booze in unusual places?
  • Are you unable to be honest about how much alcohol you consume?
  • Do you suffer blackouts or experience an inability to remember chunks of time?
  • Are you having difficulty with personal relationships, work, or the law due to drinking?

Counselors gather a history of the behavior patterns by questioning those who spend meaningful or extended time around the alcoholic. Here, the basic goal is to discover whether there has been a changing lifestyle secondary to the use of alcohol, which would indicate a growing dependence.

Drug and alcohol counselors often explore this changing lifestyle by asking probing questions. Has there been a growing tolerance to alcohol? Does it take more booze for the drinker to get the desired effect? Does the alcoholic start drinking in the kitchen before bringing drinks for guests into the living room? (I often drank secretly before drinking in front of guests or family.) To what lengths is the alcoholic willing to go to get the amount of alcohol needed? The degree of ingenuity used to get more booze becomes the scale for determining how far dependency has progressed. All instances of harmful dependency that show up in alcoholic behavior patterns indicate a maladaptation of the lifestyle to (a) growing anticipation of the welcome effects of drinking, (b) an increasingly rigid expected time of use, and (c) a progressive cunning in obtaining larger amounts of alcohol.

Rational defenses and projection take hold. Why is it that the alcoholic cannot see what is happening? Simple. They have lost the ability to see it at all. The reason alcoholics are unable to perceive what is happening to them is actually understandable. As the condition develops, self-image continues to deteriorate. Ego strength grows increasingly weaker. For many reasons, they are progressively unable to keep track of their own behavior and begin to lose contact with their emotions. Their defense systems continue to grow, so that they can survive in the face of their mounting problems. The greater the pain, the higher and more rigid the defenses become—and this whole process is unconscious. Alcoholics do not comprehend what is happening. Quite literally, they are victims of their own stinkin’ thinkin’.

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As the emotional turmoil grows in chemically-dependent people, rational defense activity turns into real mental mismanagement. The drinker erects a wall around him or her. The end result is that the alcoholic is cut off from increasingly negative feelings about themselves. They are unaware of the presence of such destructive emotions.

Not only is the drinker unaware of the powerful, highly developed defense systems, they are also unaware of the intense feelings of self-hate buried inside them. Moreover, the problem is being compounded by the fact that these defenses have now created a mass of free-floating anxiety, guilt, shame and remorse, which becomes chronic. In other words, the alcoholic no longer drinks from a “normal” point, experiencing an upswing in mood to feeling great or euphoric; rather, they must start from where they feel depressed or pained and drink to feel normal again.

Drink Takes a Man

Alcoholics drink because they drink. A Chinese proverb says, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” The drinking pattern becomes thoroughly unpredictable or compulsive. The alcoholic quits, then resumes, and does not know why he or she is drinking again. And whenever they do start again, the resumption is at the level of chronic emotional deterioration. Conditions worsen with each new episode, trapping the drinker in a deadly downward spiral.

Depression and low self-esteem become so great, the alcoholic begins to employ projection—a defense mechanism in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world rather than from within. The alcoholic does not know this is happening. The more hateful alcoholics see themselves, the more they will come to find themselves surrounded by hateful people. Depending on the personality of the drinker, such projection can present itself in ways ranging from gentle complaining to outright aggression. It is obvious the easier targets are those people typically spending time with the alcoholic, including the most meaningful. Although alcoholics tend to hate themselves, their projection works so well that they actually believe they are attacking hateful people.

People who live and exist around the active alcoholic have predictable experiences that are also psychologically damaging. As they meet failure after failure, their feelings of fear, shame, frustration, inadequacy, guilt, resentment, self-pity and anger mount. So also do their defense mechanisms. They too use rationalization as a defense against these feelings. The chemically-dependent—and those around them—all have impaired judgment; they differ only in the degree of impairment.

People who are chemically-dependent on alcohol have such a highly-developed defense system that they become seriously self-deluded. The rigid defenses that have risen spontaneously around their negative feelings about themselves, and therefore around their behaviors that caused these feelings, would be quite enough, were they the only deluding factors, to draw these people progressively and thoroughly out of touch with reality. Not only do these defense mechanisms become more rigid, but such individuals develop a growing rigidity in their very lifestyle. They are less able to adapt to unexpected change. They eventually reach a point where even schedules are burdensome. This is primarily because, paradoxically, they are less likely to plan ahead. Or, when they do plan something, they tend to feel trapped as the moment closes in.

To Make Matters Worse

Chemically-dependent people have two factors progressively working together to draw them out of touch with reality: Their defense mechanisms and distortions of memory. Consider euphoric recall, which is the tendency for an alcoholic to remember their drinking escapades euphorically or happily—in only the best light—with gross distortion of the truth. They believe they remember everything in vivid and accurate detail, thinking that all was “just fine.” Of course, this will only serve to bury the drinker’s antisocial or destructive behavior. There is a destructive distortion of perception itself. There is a lack of ability to see and appreciate reality. No recognition or acceptance that they are on a downward spiral, fast approaching rock bottom.

Rock Bottom Became the Foundation

Either of these defense mechanisms seriously impair judgment. The time inevitably comes when it is plain that alcoholics cannot see they are sick. Yet they are acutely ill with a condition that will ultimately lead to death and destruction, and which will seriously impair their constitution emotionally, mentally, and spiritually during the final months of year of their active addiction. Accordingly, treatment for acute alcoholism cannot concern itself merely with putting the drink down. It also has to do with restoration of adequate ego strength to enable the alcoholic once again to cope with life.

The Best Approach

Therapy for acute alcoholics must address the whole person. The alcoholic suffers emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Treatment often involves physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists, pathologists, and clergy. If the whole person is not treated simultaneously, relapse is simply… inevitable. If, for example, the emotional disorder alone is addressed, the alcoholic may believe he or she feels “so good” now that they can handle the drink. When treatment is short-sighted or limited, friends and family of the alcoholic may be heard commenting, “He was easier to live with when he was drinking!” This is akin to being a dry drunk. As this “dry” condition worsens, mental gains erode away and the alcoholic inevitably reverts to drinking to feel normal.

A description of despair by Søren Kierkegaard found in his book The Sickness Unto Death. Human despair is found at three distinct levels. First is the despair that expresses itself in sentences such as, “Oh what a miserable wretch I am! Oh, how unbearable it is to be me!” Second is the despair  that expresses itself by crying out, “Oh, if only I were not what I am. If only I could be like that person!” This is deeper despair because it considers self to be so worthless as to want to abandon it completely. But the third, deepest, despair of all is despair that does not believe one is a self at all. In other words, “I used to be… but not I am not.”

Physical complications, mental mismanagement, and emotional disorder are accompanied by a similarly progressive spiritual deterioration. Guilt, shame, and remorse exact their inevitable and immobilizing toll as time goes on. Feelings of self-worth begin to decline. As meaningful relationships wither on the vine, the growing estrangements lead to spiritual collapse. At the end, these feelings produce suicidal moods, ideation, and, unfortunately, suicidal attempt and/or death. If asked, “Can’t you see you’re drinking yourself to death?” the alcoholic replies, “So what? Who cares?”

Concluding Remarks

When asked how alcoholism is treated, people commonly think of either the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation. There are, however, a variety of treatment modalities currently available. Today’s treatment for alcoholism naturally rests upon decades of research. AA was founded by Bill Wilson (“Bill W.”) and Bob Smith (“Dr. Bob”) in Akron, Ohio in 1935. AA’s program of spiritual and character development is based on the premise that turning one’s life and will over to a “personally meaningful higher power” is the key to recovery. It is, in fact, referred to as the key of willingness. Another central idea is that sobriety or recovery depends on the admission of powerlessness with respect to alcohol or other substances.

Treatment for alcoholism has made significant advances in the last 20 years. Researchers are constantly seeking novel approaches for improving the effectiveness, accessibility, quality, and cost-effectiveness of treatment. Alcoholism is a treatable disease. Regardless of how someone is diagnosed as alcohol-dependent, or how they came to realize they have a drinking problem, the first step to treatment is a sincere desire to get help. Overcoming an alcohol problem is an ongoing process that sadly might involve relapse. Granted, relapse is not a “requirement” for recovery—you don’t have to change your sobriety anniversary!—but it is merely a setback and not an indication that you will fail in your attempt to get sober.

 

Supporting Our Physicians in Addressing the Opioid Crisis

From the blog of Dr. Lora Volkow dated August 31, 2018

NIDA Banner Science of Abuse and Addiction

A recurring theme among addiction researchers and professionals is the so-called treatment gap: under-utilization of effective treatments that could make a serious dent in the opioid crisis and overdose epidemic. Ample evidence shows that when used according to guidelines, the agonist medications methadone and buprenorphine reduce overdose deaths, prevent the spread of diseases like HIV, and enable people to take back their lives. Evidence supporting the effectiveness of extended-release naltrexone is also growing; but whereas naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, can be prescribed by any provider, there are restrictions on who can prescribe methadone and buprenorphine.

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A series of editorials in the July 5, 2018 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine made a strong case for lessening these restrictions on opioid agonists and thereby widening access to treatment with these medications. For historical reasons, methadone can only be obtained in licensed opioid treatment programs, but experimental U.S. programs delivering it through primary care docs have been quite successful, as have other countries’ experiences doing the same thing. Although buprenorphine can be prescribed by primary care physicians, they must first take 8 hours of training and obtain a DEA waiver, and are then only allowed to treat a limited number of patients. Some physicians argue that these restrictions are out of proportion to the real risks of buprenorphine and should be lessened so more people can benefit from this medication.

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Stigma contributes to reluctance to use evidence-supported treatment—both stigma against addicted individuals and stigma against agonist medications, due to the persistent myth that they just substitute a new addiction for an old. This idea reflects a poor understanding of dependence and addiction. Dependence is the body’s normal adaptive response to long-term exposure to a drug. Although people on maintenance treatment are dependent on their medication, so are patients with other chronic illnesses being managed medically, from diabetes to depression to pain to asthma. Addiction, in contrast, involves additional brain changes contributing to the loss of control that causes people to lose their most valued relationships and accomplishments. Opioid-dependent individuals do not get high on therapeutic doses of methadone or buprenorphine, but they are able to function without experiencing debilitating withdrawal symptoms and cravings while the imbalances in their brain circuits gradually normalize.

Treating patients with addiction may be uniquely complex and demanding for several reasons. Patients may have co-morbid medical conditions, including mental illness; thus they may need more time than doctors are reimbursed for by insurers. They may also have pain, and while pain management guidelines have changed to respond to the opioid crisis, those changes have not necessarily made a doctor’s job any easier, since there are currently no alternative medications to treat severe pain that are devoid of dangerous side effects.

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Because of the complexity of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), providers may find that it is not sufficient to simply dispense a new prescription after a quick consultation. These patients often need ancillary services provided by nurses or other treatment specialists; and in the absence of these extra layers of support, treatment is less likely to be successful, reinforcing physicians’ reluctance to treat these patients at all. In short, physicians are being blamed for causing the opioid epidemic, but thus far they have not been aided in becoming part of the solution.

Medical schools are starting to respond to the opioid crisis by increasing their training in both addiction and pain. For example, as part of its training in adolescent medicine, the University of Massachusetts Medical School has begun providing pediatric residents with the 8-hour training required to obtain a buprenorphine waiver—an idea that is winning increasingly wide support. Physicians in some emergency departments are also initiating overdose survivors on buprenorphine instead of just referring them to treatment. And through its NIDA MedPortal, NIDA provides access to science-based information and resources on OUD and pain to enable physicians to better address these conditions and their interactions, including easy-to-use screening tools to help physicians identify substance misuse or those at risk.

But if physicians are going to assume a bigger role in solving the opioid crisis, healthcare systems must also support them in delivering the kind of care and attention that patients need. Physicians need the tools to treat addiction effectively as well as the added resources (and time) for patients who need more than just a quick consultation and a prescription.

The Opioid Issue: Part 6

Part 6: Hope, Not Handcuffs

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In a growing number of towns, police aren’t arresting people facing addiction. Instead, they’re providing a doorway to treatment.

Judge Linda Davis hasn’t only seen the toll opioids take from the bench. She’s also seen it at home—with one of her daughters. “I thought our family would be the last family on earth this would happen to,” she says. “I was a judge and a former prosecutor who’d run the drug unit. We talked about these issues constantly.”

Then one of her daughters—a fine student and athlete—got hurt at age 17 and needed knee surgery. Pills were prescribed. That led to heroin. And later, a four a.m. confession: “Mom, I’m a heroin addict. I need help.”

That was 12 years ago: Davis’ daughter has been clean since then. “I’m just one of many parents with a story like that,” Davis says. “It amazes me that every time I share it, someone says, ‘I have a son or daughter or grandson or nephew or mother or grandmother with a problem like that.’ It’s that widespread.” Davis hasn’t stopped at telling her story. She volunteers her lunch hours to serve on drug court on top of her normal docket as a judge in Clinton Township, Mich. She co-founded a group, Families Against Narcotics (FAN), which has spread across the state. And that group is taking a leading role in promoting a new approach to fighting opioid addiction.

Angels Among Us

In May 2015, Gloucester, Mass. Police Chief Leonard Campanello posted a Facebook announcement: Anyone could come to the police department, report an opioid addiction, and police would get them into treatment. No arrests, no punishment. Just help. In the first year, 376 people showed up. Almost 95 percent got direct referrals for treatment. Today, that’s grown into a national program: the Police-Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI), with nearly 400 participating police departments in approximately 30 states. Some 12,000 people have been ushered into treatment so far.

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The largest of those partners is Macomb County, Mich., comprised mostly of 860,000 Detroit suburbanites—FAN’s home base—where an important new element was added. FAN’s idea, successfully pitched to police and community leaders: Rather than burden police in such a populous area with getting people into treatment, specially-trained community volunteers—known as “angles”—would help with the load.

Under the Macomb County program—called “Hope, Not Handcuffs,” an angel is called to the police station to give one-on-one attention to the person reporting an addiction. The volunteer sits with him or her, helps fill out forms and makes the calls to get into a treatment center right away. The angel is there after treatment too—helping, if needed, to find housing or support services, among other things.

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It’s an approach which has captured a lot of hearts and minds. Some 250 people have stepped up to the angel role. Three emergency-service ambulance companies agreed to provide free transportation to treatment centers. Hope Not Handcuffs already is operating in eight Michigan counties, and spreading. “The program started a little over a year ago, and already we’ve placed almost 1,300 people in treatment,” Davis says. “We’re working with up to 90 police departments on implementing this in the state of Michigan. “We get calls from all over the U.S. wanting to initiate the program. But as an all-volunteer group, we don’t have the resources to coordinate with them. We can’t grow that fast.”

After decades as a judge and prosecutor, Davis is struck by the change in law enforcement’s approach. “Police officers are leading the charge for reforms,” she says. “We’ve had a big shift from the ‘lock ’em up’ mentality they were taught in the academies. “Now you’ll hear officers say it all the time: ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this. This is a disease, and locking up people with a disease won’t work.’ For them to say that is really changing the stigma of addiction and opening up new possibilities.”

Living Testimonies

Signs of that changing mentality in law enforcement are popping up all over. There are more than 3,100 drug courts in the country, the U.S. Department of Justice reports—specialized docket programs focusing mostly on treatment and rehabilitation. Roughly half of them deal with juveniles; the other half, with adults.

In Macomb County, a lot of people are grateful. And some are giving back. Micki Dodson’s mom was an addict. Micki, now 30, eventually followed in her footsteps, spending the better part of a decade on pills, heroin, and crack cocaine. Only after her mother died of an overdose last year did she turn the corner. Dodson has been clean since May 2017, and she’s scheduled to graduate from the drug court program in October. “I’m a huge fan of Hope Not Handcuffs,” she says. “Drug court has been my saving grace. I can’t thank them enough: They worked wonders for me. I couldn’t stay clean on my own.”

Now Dodson plans to undergo angel training, so she can do for others what someone did for her. “I have to give back,” she says. “It helps me. I want to let them know there’s hope. If I help one person today, I’ve done my job for that day.”

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Anthony Mattarella is giving back too. Much like Davis’s daughter, he was injured in his youth and went from prescription opioids to heroin and other drugs. That lasted eight years, with numerous fruitless stints in jail or rehab. Three years ago, when his case was bounded over to Davis’ drug court, things changed. “Before I got into the program, I wanted to die,” Mattarella says. “When I got in, I was willing to do anything they asked of me. I knew I was either going to kill myself or I was going to get sober.”

Now he’s a peer-recovery coach for 41B Drug Court in Clinton Township, Mich.—the same court where Davis serves. He’s helping lost people find their way, using his experience to connect with them and guide them. “It’s so rewarding,” he says. “I see them go through the [recovery] process; I see the smiles on their faces when they start to understand.”

Looking back, Mattarella marvels at the change in his life.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable to me,” he says. “I never thought I’d be here. I never thought I’d be someone who helps people.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To learn more about Hope, Not Handcuffs, go to familiesagainstnarcotics.org/hopenothandcuffs. For more information on the Police-Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, visit paariusa.org.

The Opioid Issue: Part 5

Part Five: Troubling Vital Signs

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The opioid epidemic is straining America’s health care and treatment resources, while opening the door for unscrupulous fraudsters to make money off those struggling to overcome addiction. How much more can emergency rooms handle? The most recent numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spanning 45 states, show nearly 143,000 ER visits for opioid overdoses over a 15-month period. That period ended in the third quarter of 2017 and represented a 30-percent jump from the same time span a year earlier.

“The staff isn’t sure what to do with [opioid overdose patients],” says Karl Benzio, M.D., a Christian psychiatrist and member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC). “You don’t feel comfortable just discharging the person. The staff doesn’t know how dangerous the person is when they leave the doors, whether they will overdose—or worse—when they leave, how to find a responsible party to transfer the care and responsibility to.” Fellow PRC member W. David, Hager, M.D., agrees. “We’re seeing a lot of frustration among our providers with ‘frequent fliers,” says Hager, a practicing physician with Baptist Health Medical Group in Lexington, Kentucky. Both physicians point to different problems connected to the opioid crisis.

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Benzio notes that many overdose cases are complicated because ER staffs aren’t generally equipped to deal with mental or behavioral health. Many of those patients  should ideally be in a residential rehabilitation program, but are unable to secure health care insurance coverage. This leaves the medical personnel on the front lines of care facing a dilemma for which there are no simple answers. Between the rapid rise in overdose cases and the moral gray area of providing narcotics to so-called “frequent fliers,” America’s emergency rooms are in a precarious position when it comes to the opioid issue. The crisis threatens to break the backs of overworked ER staffs, whose efforts to help those in pain with long-term prescriptions may only be fueling the crisis.

FAKE TREATMENT CENTERS

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The overwhelming strain the opioid epidemic has placed on legitimate health care providers has also opened the doors for unscrupulous con artists looking for easy money. These fraudsters—and it’s not clear just how many there are across the country—run fake treatment centers preying on those seeking a way out of their opioid struggles.

“Several factors came together—so many people in need of addiction treatment and managed care to reduce their length of stay in the hospital—that there became a huge need for more addiction rehabs,” Benzio explains. “Certain states that had a high level of drug use made it very easy to open a rehab; not many restrictions, licensing issues or hoops to go through. Also, insurance plans needed a place to put someone who was in danger of overdosing but needed one-on-one monitoring, so entities put together minimally-trained people with a schedule and sold it to the insurance as a rehab.” With the potential to make big money and only vague criteria for what a “quality” treatment facility includes, many unqualified providers jumped into the rehab industry.

Cash from Treatment Centers

“A lot of people going through addiction thought, ‘Wow, I could put together a better program than that,’ so they developed their own after getting clean for 20 minutes,” says Benzio. Though he believes some who entered the rehab industry in this way truly wanted to help, others are outright shams and just billing insurance large sums. Some bill for services they don’t even provide. Some will encourage their patients to use drugs or supply them so they can continue to bill insurance. Many cannot get doctors or licensed therapists [on staff], which would make them accountable to higher state and national licensing standards.

UNSCRUPULOUS REHAB CENTER OPERATORS

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Somehow, even with all our laws pertaining to drug possession and use, we still find ourselves in a largely unregulated addiction treatment field. And even worse, the biggest driving force seems to be well-meaning legislation—like the Affordable Care and Parity Acts—which made treatment more accessible for more people, but unfortunately also opened the door for predators and frauds to get in on the action. They are unconscionably attempting to make a profit off our nation’s current drug epidemic with unethical and shocking practices like patient brokering, identity theft, kickbacks, and insurance fraud.

A behavioral healthcare survey on ethical concerns in the drug rehab industry identified patient brokering tactics in the form of money and gifts that some treatment centers are using to entice patients. Need sober living but can’t afford it? Some programs address this by offering free room and board and other amenities, then bill insurance excessively for unnecessary drug testing and other services to make up the cost. Sadly, many unregulated sober living homes have become unsafe and overcrowded “flophouses” where crimes like theft, human trafficking, prostitution, and illegal drug use are commonplace.

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We’re also seeing patients-turned-recruiters, people just out of treatment with very little time in recovery who can suddenly start making big money selling people they know to rehab centers, checking themselves into competitor programs to lure clients away, and collecting “finder’s fees” of $500 to $1,000 per patient or more. And if that doesn’t work, people are getting paid to relapse so that treatment centers can collect more insurance money. Shockingly, some of these practices are not per se illegal. And in situations where they are, states do not have the resources to regulate.

A Palm Beach Post investigation of the county’s $1 billion drug treatment industry found that testing the urine of recovering addicts is so lucrative that treatment centers are paying sober living homes for patients. Urine drug screen costs may be $6 once a week, but centers test every 48 hours and bill insurance companies $1,200 each time. You may have heard about treatment center owner Kenneth Chatman. A federal investigation targeted sober living homes and rehab centers founded by Chatman and others. Chatman appeared before a U.S. magistrate in West Palm Beach, Florida. The recovery businesses founded by Chatman provided illegal kickbacks, coerced residents into prostitution, threatened violence against patients, and submitted urine and saliva for screening even when no medical need existed.

It’s an exploitation of some of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals and it needs to stop!

FINDING REAL HELP

Amid a sea of get-rich-quick frauds, how can those struggling to overcome opioid addiction find genuine help? How can they—and their families—be sure they’re not scammed by fraudsters? Benzio says quality facilities have several standout features. He advises looking for those that are Christian-owned, apply the Bible to daily living, and emphasize the importance of growing in a relationship with God. Some of the other key elements include:

  • One of the owners is an accomplished clinician, such as a psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist. Clinicians with ownership stakes usually have professional reputations to maintain, an understanding of what great care looks like, and a desire to make clinical excellence a primary focus.
  • A psychiatrist sees the patient early in the admission process for detox purposes and to help diagnose underlying issues that contribute to the patient’s opioid use.
  • The treatment and residential facilities are located on the same campus, allowing for a higher level of accreditation and insurance approval.
  • Individual therapy is provided by masters-level and/or licensed therapists. Each patient receives several individual sessions per week.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Between the overloaded hospitals, risky prescribing practices and minefield of rehab programs, the opioid epidemic is stretching and straining America’s health care resources like nothing we’ve ever seen. Tackling those (and many other) massive opioid-related issues will require innovative solutions.

Cece and Bobby Brown of Charleston, WV had a son who died four years ago at age 27. His parents describe him as being “just like the kid next door,” stating he was a trouble-free child who loved sports, music, skateboarding, and God. His mother said, “I sent him to college to get a degree, and he came home with an addiction.” Ryan struggled with opioids for seven years, surviving three overdoses along the way. But in April 2014, he had another—at the local mall. The Browns believe their son ran into an acquaintance there who gave him the heroin that snuffed out his life.

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The couple spent thousands on detox and rehabilitation programs for Ryan. What he really needed, they say, was a long-term facility where he could get clean for good. Instead, a typical cycle for Ryan would consist of seven days of detox and regular participation in outpatient programs, therapy groups and Narcotics Anonymous. That combination would keep him clean for about six weeks.

But he needed more.

Ryan was on waiting lists for two long-term treatment centers when he died. Having aged out of his parents’ insurance plan at 26, he had just received Medicaid benefits three days before his death. Most heartbreaking, his parents learned after his passing that a treatment facility that could have accepted Ryan was only three miles away. Now his parents can’t help but wonder, What if the wait times had been shorter, the coverage had come a bit earlier, and we had known about the facility nearby?

“That would’ve given opportunity. I can’t say that would have changed things, but opportunity is everything,” Cece says. Over the last four years, the Browns have made it their mission to make sure others with similar struggles in West Virginia have the opportunities Ryan didn’t.

INNOVATE FOR THE STATE

After a two-year effort led by Bobby and Cece, last year West Virginia lawmakers passed legislation creating the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund. The Fund aims to expand the state’s capacity to help those struggling with opioids but lacking private insurance, Medicaid or Medicare coverage by blending public grants and private dollars. People can contribute charitable gifts.

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So far, the model has yielded promising results: The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $20.8 million through the Fund to nine long-term treatment facilities statewide. That’s already translated to 300 more West Virginians getting treatment than would’ve been the case otherwise. The Browns explain it’s just reality that many struggling with opioids have low-wage jobs that don’t offer insurance. Some, they say, have felonies that prevent them from securing jobs with better wages and benefits. But that doesn’t mean they should be left behind. Bobby said, “If they don’t want help, there’s nothing we can do. But if they do want help, we need to get them help.”

The Browns are also grateful West Virginia has addressed another problem: In September 2015, the state launched a resource hotline to help those combating opioid addiction.  “We didn’t have a number to call to talk to anyone; didn’t know where to get help,” Bobby recalls. “Now that number has come out.” Those needing help can simply call 1-800-HELP-4WV—and thousands have.

Bobby and Cece say they feel honored to play a role in easing the burden the opioid epidemic has placed on the health care system, and to help families struggling with the weight of it all find solid answers. They’ve been part of several White House events aimed at finding solutions, and say they’ll continue to engage the Trump administration in the hopes of keeping the heat on. As a reminder of the epidemic’s devastating toll, Cece displayed a picture of Ryan at a round table discussion with First Lady Melania Trump earlier this year.

This needs to be about people, not politics.

The Opioid Issue: Part 4

Part Four: Taking It to the Streets

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The opioid epidemic doesn’t stay behind closed doors. It’s spilling into public life, spurring crime and homelessness.

The opioid crisis has hit hard in Macomb County, Michigan. Composed of 27 Detroit suburbs, the county has the state’s second-highest opioid-related overdose death rate, more than double the national average. District Court Judge Linda Davis has been on the bench 17 years. She sees the consequences pretty much every day. “When I look at the docket I handle, I’d say 70 percent is addiction-related,” she says, not counting low-level traffic offenses like driving on a suspended license. “We’ve definitely seen a rise in thefts with this opioid surge.”

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Although opioid addiction often starts out legally, recent years have seen a shift toward illegal opioids. It’s an all-to-familiar story: People get hooked on prescription painkillers, often moving on to heroin, which can be cheaper on the street. Since 2011, as prescription opioid overdose deaths leveled off, heroin overdoses started rising. Starting in 2014, illicit fentanyl deaths began spiking upward. Whatever the substance, the cost mounts up fast. So many users resort to theft. They’ll steal from family, friends, acquaintances or strangers. They’ll shoplift, commit fraud, rob pharmacies, break into homes or cars. Even commit armed robbery. And whether or not they’re committing those crimes themselves, their desperate dependency can feed some even worse ones.

Lethal Combination

In 2015, the nation’s homicide rate rose sharply (11 percent) after decades of decline. The uptrend continued in 2016, climbing another 8 percent. Some observers looked for racial reasons for it. There could be one, says Richard Rosenfeld, an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But he thinks there’s more to the story. When Rosenfeld looked into the data, he quickly saw homicides had jumped among several ethnicities—and it was very pronounced among whites.

“The increase is quite abrupt, quite recent and quite large, at levels we hadn’t seen since the early 1990s outside of 9/11,” Rosenfeld says. “The ‘Ferguson Effect’ doesn’t explain that. So what might explain it? The opioid epidemic, for one thing—which crosses racial lines, but is most concentrated among whites. Drug-related homicides rose more than 21 percent in 2015, a rate far higher than other common categories of homicide, which rose between 3 and 5 percent. Rosenfeld said it stands to reason that there’d be a connection between the spikes in opioid use and lethal violence.

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“It’s not opioid use per se that sparks violence, but the markets,” Rosenfeld says. “When disputes arise between sellers or buyers, they can’t be settled by police or courts or the Better Business Bureau. As the number of buyers expands, so does the number of disputes that turn deadly will also go up.”

Just how big a role do opioids play in driving the rise in homicides? That calls for more research, Rosenfeld says. But he sees ample evidence to sound the warning and to call for addressing the root causes. “Policymakers and law enforcement are framing this as a public-health crisis more than as a criminal-justice crisis, and I’m very much in favor of that,” he says. “The bottom line is: If we reduce demand, we reduce crime.”

“We Don’t Want Those People Here!”

Reducing demand for opioids would likely reduce other social pathologies too. Like homelessness. “For those of us who’ve been providing health care to people who are homeless, this is not a new problem,” says Barbara DiPietro, senior policy director for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “We’ve been seeing opioid addiction and overdoses for decades.

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“When people are in a spiral and aren’t getting the help they need, oftentimes they lose their jobs and their ability to pay rent. Before you know it, you cycle through family and friends, and you’re in a shelter or on the street.” Of course, not all people who are homeless have addiction issues, but those that do have a harder time getting into treatment once the stability of housing is gone. Living on the street could easily drive anyone to substance abuse. Maybe you started with alcohol, but once you were on the street, you found other things. It’s very hard to get well when you’re homeless.

Federally-qualified health centers provide care to 1.2 million people a year, and the Council provides technical assistance to help improve quality and access. DiPietro says homeless service providers often see clients who never expected to be in this situation. “We see a lot of clients who come from construction work or other hard-physical-labor jobs, who got hurt and got prescriptions for legitimate reasons,” she says. “We see a lot of people who’ve experienced trauma in their lives—child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault. So they self-medicate to deal with the pain.” And on the street, their problems are much more visible than those of people who engage in their addictive behavior behind closed doors.

“They’re living their private lives in a public space,” DiPietro says. “They’re subject to public scrutiny, arrest and incarceration at a much higher rate. And once you have an incarceration history, it’s hard to get housing assistance or a job again.”

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While more medical facilities and first responders are being equipped with opioid-overdose medications like naloxone (Narcan), that’s just an emergency measure, not a solution. DiPietro says what people struggling with addiction and homelessness need most is stable housing where they can get effective treatment. Health care providers the Council works with can help, but not enough to meet the scale of the problem.

Right now, communities don’t have the capacity desperately needed to get people into treatment. Another big obstacle is the attitude known as NIMBY—Not in My Back Yard. “Everyone believes treatment is important, but no one wants the services near them,” DiPietro says. “When that’s proposed, they rise up in community meetings and say, “We don’t want those people here.”

We’ve simply got to get beyond that attitude.

A Parting Thought

I spent forty years in active addiction. It started simple enough: A case of beer and an ounce of Colombian Gold. Eighteen months later I was serving 3 to 10 in state prison. Drug and alcohol abuse continued throughout parole and into my thirties, forties and early fifties. My drug use ran the gamut, from weed to cocaine to crack to opiates. When I couldn’t get enough oxycodone through doctors, I began stealing it from friends and family. My addiction cost me plenty, yes, but it also cost my children, my two ex wives, my brothers, my sister, and my parents. I lost jobs, cars, apartments, friends and family. I blew every penny I made, bounced checks, embezzeled, fenced stolen goods. I was enslaved to addiction. Not only did my family disown me for nearly two years, my youngest son didn’t talk to me for five years.

It’s not only the family of addicts that can become fed up and turn their backs on their loved ones struggling with addiction; society has become rather fed up and impatient. One of our local television stations airs a nightly feature called “Talkback 16,” where viewers call to voice their grievances, pet peeves, and, yes, an occasional compliment. Several days after a news story aired about plans to build a drug and alcohol treatment center in the Pocono Mountains (Pennsylvania), a viewer called to complain about the plan, adding, “Not in my neighborhood. [Addicts and alcoholics] can’t be trusted. Besides, they did it to themselves.”

Truly, this attitude must change.

 

The Opioid Issue: Part 3

Part Three: A System on the Brink

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Already under tremendous strain from a lack of qualified homes and social support, the American foster care system is staring down its toughest opponent yet: the opioid epidemic. Typically, when a mother or father in active addiction has young dependent children, agencies such as Children and Youth or Child and Family Services will remove the children from their parents. Of course, family court judges nearly always focus on possibly reuniting the children and their parents after they become clean and sober.

Consider the mother of a child who was born addicted to opiates. The court removed the infant from the mother’s care and placed him in foster care. After the mother was able to stay clean for one year and put her life back together, the child was returned to her. Sadly, the mother ultimately relapsed, and the child’s health and welfare were put in jeopardy. He would need to reenter the foster care system, this time with the goal of being adopted permanently. Foster Care CollageAccording to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly half a million children nationwide were living in foster care arrangements in 2016—and that number has been rising for the last four years. One could say the very heart of the nation’s foster system is aching for any sort of relief.

A Century-Old Practice

Since creating a Children’s Bureau in 1912, the U.S. government has played a critical role when parents can no longer care for their minor children due to illness, death, criminal activity and/or substance abuse. That care—provided mainly by individual foster families or relatives, but also through group homes and institutions—has at times extended to other nations, such as the more than 8,000 European refugee children who were fostered in American homes during World War II.

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Though it has successfully kept millions of children fed, clothed, educated, sheltered and safe over the last 106 years, the American foster system hasn’t been foolproof. In 1972, when President Richard Nixon declared a “National Action for Foster Children Week” to recruit more foster families, the system has been highlighted mostly for its deficits: Too few willing foster parents, too many kids, too little funding and support, too hard on the heart for everyone involved.

Margie Nielsen deals with those shortcomings daily. As the director of Foster Care & Adoption Ministries at Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home (LBCH)—a nonprofit ministry founded in 1899, more than a decade before official government foster care was created—Nielsen’s organization is an official partner of the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services. Certified foster parents run residential “cottages” that each accommodate up to six children between the ages of 5 and 17. LBCH exists to educate, inform, encourage, support, and strengthen current and prospective foster parents.

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While there are many families who clearly are not called to foster, everyone can and should be involved in supporting the families who are. In James 1:27, God’s Word teaches, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV). It is our duty as the Body of Christ to help foster families to understand the call God has placed on their lives and to help equip them to answer that call. A joy, yes—but the last few years have greatly expanded the need for people to answer that call.

With opioid addiction soaring to crisis level, it certainly calls for more information to be disseminated. And while drug addiction of any kind affects everyone, the nation’s opioid crisis has upped the ante. The necessity of developing preventive strategies is felt more than before.

Little Victims

While the connection between drug abuse and children needing foster care is nothing new—think heroin in the 1970s, cocaine in the 1980s, and meth in the 1990s—what has changed the game for today’s foster care system has been the sheer percentage of Americans struggling with opioid addiction across all demographics. The cold hard truth: That number staggers at more than two million, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a 60-year-old professional society for treatment providers based in Maryland.

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According to the National Institute of Health, 21 to 29 percent of patients suffering from chronic pain misuse their prescription opioids, and that often puts them on the path to harder drugs; about 80 percent of people who use heroin first abused prescription opioids, Tragically, around 116 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every day—that’s one death every seven minutestranslating into tens of thousands of dead Americans annually. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 200,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016.

It stands to reason that a significant portion of those people who died, as well as the millions living with addiction, were or are parents of minor children. Indeed, HHS reports 30,000 more children were living in foster homes nationwide in 2015 than in 2012, and substance abuse (including, but not limited to, opioids) was cited as a reason in about one-third of those placements. Drug addiction does not discriminate; sadly, it can hit any family at any time. And often, when it does, children of those struggling with addiction enter the already-pressed foster system.

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Simply put, there are not enough foster homes in the United States to accommodate the burgeoning number of kids needing short- and long-term care. In California, for example, the Los Angeles Times reports the number of available beds in qualified foster homes fell from 22,000 in 2000 to just 9,000 in 2016. Massachusetts had more than 6,100 foster children in 2016, but less than 4,800 foster homes, according to The Boston Globe. Such shortages have led to reports of foster children sleeping in government offices and even hotels around the nation while their social workers scramble to find willing families.

But it’s not just the dearth of available foster parents that concerns child welfare advocates. Though government reports show about one-quarter of all formal foster care placements are with relatives (sometimes called kinship care), the vast majority of foster families are strangers to foster children. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 88 percent of the 25,000 children who reported ran away from home in 2017 were in foster care at the time. Many of those runaways become the victims of sex traffickers.

We need to pray that as each day passes these foster children (who have had their tiny world shattered by drug abuse) survive—indeed, thrive—and that they live with hearts full of love and hope. Sadly, the future is yet unclear regarding America’s opiate epidemic. Moreover, we don’t know the full scope of opioid crisis’ on the foster system still has yet to be revealed. These little victims never had the choice to be exposed to the drugs. They can’t Just Say No.

Thousands upon thousands of little Americans are waiting to be seen, helped and healed.

The Opioid Issue: Part 2

Part Two: Collateral Damage

As the nation grapples with opioid’s hold over millions, its smallest victims cry out to be heard, held, and healed. No Child Left Behind is a familiar battle cry. But to foster parents helping to care for children of parents addicted to drugs, those words have nothing to do with a political agenda or advertising campaign. One foster mom reported quietly watching another baby detox from opiates, its high-pitched wails unique with the sound of drug-induced anguish, and whispering, “A whole generation is being lost from the opioid epidemic. A whole generation.”

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That generation—with hundreds of thousands of America’s youngest feeling its physical, mental, and emotional impact, sometimes from the moment of conception—is staring down what doctors call Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). The condition is not something that can be cured with a pill. There are so many children growing up without their parents that the long-term ramifications are still unforeseen. The United States has certainly faced its share of social and public health problems over the years, but when it comes to the opioid crisis, child advocates around the country warn, it’s a strange and scary new world.

Agony in the Womb

According to a study released by the University of Minnesota this spring, one baby struggling with NAS is born in America every 15 minutes. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of pregnancies among women struggling with opioid addiction are unintentional. When a woman takes opioids while pregnant—even exactly as a doctor might instruct, according to the March of Dimes—she runs the substantial risk of harming her unborn child.

One Baby Every Half Hour

Prescription painkillers like codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone (as well as the street drug heroin) are all classified as opioids and all negatively affect children in the womb. Common risks of opioid use during pregnancy, the March of Dimes says, include miscarriage, preterm labor, premature birth, birth defects, low birth weight (defined as weighing less than five pounds, eight ounces), and NAS. NAS is its own beast. The completely preventable condition can grip babies with tremors, fever, chills, weight loss, seizures, and even death. Dr. W. David Hager, member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC), believes 55-94% of newborns delivered to women who used opioids in pregnancy suffer from NAS.

Clearly, it is nearly impossible for an unborn child to skate past the consequences of his or her mother’s opioid use, no matter how slight. Yet damage isn’t usually intentional. Instead, Hager says, addiction to opioids reaches far beyond the initial physical pleasure to something much deeper.

It All Adds Up

That’s a familiar story for J. Scott Moody and Wendy Warcholik, a married pair of economists. As the directors of Family Prosperity Institute (FPI), a New Hampshire-based think tank focused on measuring the health of the American family, Moody and Warcholik frequently hear about opioid-related crises—and have watched their own loved ones succumb to substance abuse along the way. Warcholik, for example, grew up in a family fragmented by her parents’ collective five divorces. Of all her siblings, she was the only one to have fully escaped the negative consequences. The others have experienced unemployment, substance abuse, government dependency, low educational attainment, unwed childbirth, and divorce.

FPI has created a family prosperity index—a formula-driven rankings list that measures the strength and prosperity of families and the nation by combining the most important economic and social data into a single number and then ranking those states based on which create the best environment for families to thrive. The index fills in the gaps around other measures like the gross domestic product, assembling all the pieces of the prosperity puzzle into a complete picture of the economy. No other measure takes into consideration both the economic and social choices of people in a state to create a holistic measure of human behavior in the States.

The latest FPI index ranked Utah first and New Mexico last. FPI’s formula calculates things like average welfare utilization, children in married households, religious attendance and infant mortality rate. That last category is most disconcerting because as opioid use has risen, so has infant mortality rate. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines that as the death of an infant before his or her first birthday), while the infant mortality rate is the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.

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Between 2010 and 2015 twenty-one states saw an increase in their infant mortality rate. So many states, in fact, that while the national average dropped 16 percent between 2000 and 2015, the last five years only saw a decrease of 1.6 percent. Clearly, if trends continue, the country could see an increase in the infant mortality rate in the near future. Keep in mind that a rising infant mortality rate is typically only found in Third World countries. Besides the physical, emotional and mental cost to America’s children, opioid addiction doesn’t come fiscally cheap, either. For example, in 2015 Ohio paid more than $133 million to care for approximately 2,000 NAS babies born that year.

The True Cost

Interestingly, FPI’s research shows that devout beliefs and behaviors (consistent church attendance, daily prayer, Bible reading, etc.) reduce illicit drug use. The converse holds true as well. Moody says, “It is clear that people in despair who don’t turn to God for help will try to numb their pain some other way, whether it be with drugs or sex. Unfortunately, at least for the last decade, we’ve been seeing more and more people turning to drugs and sex than God. We have to reverse this trend.”

Ultimately, America truly has no idea what the long-term consequences of opioid addiction on our most innocent citizens will be. “We read horrifying stories in New England about parents shooting up their own children just to keep them quiet, or left in a freezing car with their parents passed out in the front seat,” Warcholik says. How far are we, as a society, willing to go in elevating adult desires over the health and well being of our children?

That is a question far beyond the scope of any research team—but one the Church must rise up to help answer.

 

 

The Opioid Issue: Part 1

Part One: Dangerous Prescriptions

The opioid crisis seems to hit everyone, everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic class, geography, age, profession, or religious affiliation. Overdosing on drugs, especially opiates and heroin, is now the most common cause of death for Americans under fifty years of age. I spent forty years embroiled in active addiction. It started innocently with a case of beer, but quickly led to marijuana, cocaine, and inhalants. The longer I struggled, the more hopeless I became. Friends stopped calling me or inviting me to parties. Family felt they could no longer trust me given the hundreds of broken promises and countless runs on their medicine cabinets for opiates. Although I was able to stop drinking and taking street drugs in 2008, I battled with benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan) and oxycodone for another eight years. I am blessed presently with nearly two years without taking narcotics.

Opiates in Pill Bottles

This epidemic has reached every corner of the United States. This is the first in a series of blog posts regarding opiate addiction in America. This series will address dangers of opiate prescriptions, collateral damage, impact on the nation’s foster care system, homelessness and addiction, troubling developments in drug rehabilitation, addiction and crime, and a Christian response to the crisis.

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Current medical opinion indicates the reason the U.S. is experiencing a disastrous epidemic of opioid abuse can be summed up in two words: pain avoidance. In the 1990s there was a proliferation of health care professionals trying to address the symptom [of pain] and not so much the underlying causes of the pain a person has. In 2015, opioid-related deaths stole the lives of over 33,000 Americans. To put this number into perspective, this outnumbers fatal car crashes and gun deaths during the same year. According to the federal government, in 2016 the nation mourned close to 64,000 deaths from drug overdoses. Two-thirds of those involved the misuse of opioids. Karl Benzio, M.D., a Christian psychiatrist and member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC), fears the toll could reach 80,000 deaths in 2018.

We wouldn’t be here if opioids weren’t so effective. Americans want something for their pain—regardless of whether that pain is physical, mental, or emotional. We live in a psychologically compromised society that is impatient and entitled, whose citizens feel there should be no pain in life. Accordingly, greater demands have been made on providers to eliminate all pain with medication. The problem is—and I know this all too well firsthand—once a patient gets a taste of the relief, some develop a dependence that leads them down a dark path. Ironically, that path leads only to deeper struggles. For some, the exit will only come in the form of fatal overdoses as opioids shut down the body’s ability to breath.

It is time we start helping patients deal with life’s pain and its root causes head-on, rather than masking it through medication.

How it All Began

Chronic Pain The Silent Condition

The current crisis can be traced back nearly forty years. Medical researcher Hershel Jick and graduate student Jane Porter of Boston University Medical Center analyzed data from patients who had been hospitalized there. Close to 12,000 had received at least one dose of a narcotic pain medication during their stay. Of those, Jick and Porter’s analysis found only four had developed a well-documented addiction. Jick sent the findings to the New England Journal of Medicine, who published his analysis as a letter to the editor in 1980. “Despite widespread use of narcotics [sic] drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction,” Jick wrote. Unfortunately, this quote was given far more merit than it deserved. Moreover, the conclusion had not been subjected to peer review.

In 1990, Scientific American called the Jick/Porter research “an extensive study.” About a decade later, Time proclaimed it “a landmark study.” Most significantly, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, maker of the popular narcotic OxyContin, began a promotion asserting less than one percent of patients treated with their time-released opiate medication OxyContin would become addicted. In the 1990s, pain was correlated with a greater probability of a patient having ongoing health issues. So the medical community elevated it to the position of the fifth vital sign along with heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiratory rate. The medical community, thinking that reducing pain would help long-term patient satisfaction, health and outcomes, started to prescribe more pain meds.

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The ’90s also saw the development of stronger and more effective opioid painkillers. As the decade drew to a close, the opioid epidemic was ignited. It took some time for most of the country to realize the metaphorical fuse had been lit, but the numbers back up this concern. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), between 2000 and 2017 opioid prescriptions increased 400 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, misuse involving noncompliance with prescription instructions or using medications prescribed for another person doubled. Now, the results are playing out in heartbreaking fashion nationwide, which are impossible to ignore. Overdose deaths—116 per day, according to federal statistics—are shaking Americans of all incomes, ages, and ethnicity. From the rural back roads of Appalachia (Kentucky, West Virginia) to the urban sprawl of New York and Los Angeles, the epidemic is cutting a path that threatens to leave no family unscathed.

The Blame Game

It’s become quite popular (if not convenient) to lay the blame for the epidemic squarely at the feet of the big pharmaceutical companies. For example, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times in May of this year, more than 350 cities, counties, and states had filed lawsuits against makers and distributors of opioid painkillers. The LA civil action accuses drugmakers and distributors of deceptive marketing aimed at boosting sales, claiming the companies borrowed from the “tobacco industry playbook.” One of the companies most frequently put under scrutiny has been Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin.

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In May The New York Times called Purdue “the company that planted the seeds of the opioid epidemic through its aggressive marketing of OxyContin.” The Times article uncovered a disturbing report on OxyContin compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Purdue Pharma knew about and concealed significant incidents of abuse of OxyContin in the first years after the drug hit the market in 1996. The article further noted that Purdue Pharma admitted in open court in 2007 that it misrepresented the data regarding OxyContin’s potential for abuse.

Overdose Deaths Not Just Related to Opiate Prescriptions

Government reports have recently stated that today’s increase of fatal opioid-related overdoses is being driven by abuse of heroin and illicit fentanyl. A study prepared by the National Institute on Drug Abuse last September found that overdose deaths from heroin and other drugs laced with fentanyl increased 600 percent between 2002 and 2015. Street dealers have increasingly been cutting their drugs with fentanyl—a particularly dangerous and relatively inexpensive substance 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine—to boost their profit margins. In most cases, the users don’t even realize they’re buying fentanyl-laced products.

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It is important to note that although many people believe Big Pharma is complicit in fueling the epidemic and should shoulder the loin’s share of the blame, Dr. Benzio sees it differently. “Pharmaceutical companies only make the meds,” Benzio says. “Only about 6 to 8 percent of people who take an opioid will misuse or overuse it in a destructive way. It is the doctors who over-prescribe and a society that is looking for a quick fix and can’t tolerate any discomfort [that’s to blame].”

The Road Ahead

The opiate epidemic may have grown somewhat quietly, but the nation’s attention is riveted to it now and policymakers aren’t sitting still. In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state to limit the duration for painkiller prescriptions at seven days. Since then, more than two dozen other states have also established limits. In my home state of Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf initiated a statewide prescription drug monitoring system to help prevent prescription drug abuse. Of concern is the practice of “doctor shopping,” which involves a patient visiting multiple doctors and emergency departments in search of opioids. Unfortunately, this is something I did quite often while in active addiction. This practice often necessitates filling prescriptions at multiple pharmacies. The governor’s new policy includes the monitoring program, a standing order for naloxone (Narcan, used to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose), a patient non-opioid directive (which allows patients to opt out of opioid pain medicine in advance) a “warm hand-off” where ER attending physicians and other providers can set up a face-to-face introduction between a patient and a substance abuse specialist, and revised prescribing guidelines relative to opiates.

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At the federal level, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017, and formed a commission to fight it. Meanwhile, HHS now has a multi-pronged strategy to get the crisis under control, including getting better data through research and improving prevention, treatment, pain management, and recovery services. The federal crackdown is estimated to cost $13 billion to $18 billion over the next two years. Dr. Benzio believes this is “a good start,” but said providers must resist the urge to automatically jump to the quick fix of narcotics for those in pain. “There are many ways to combat pain through physical therapy and fitness, relaxation, better sleep and nutrition,” says Benzio. It seems likely that we will not get a significant handle on opioid abuse until the core issues that lead people to the drugs are addressed.

The Christian Perspective

W. David Hager, M.D., a member of the PRC, notes three principle root issues in addiction: rejection, abandonment and abuse. Hager has been a facilitator for the Christian program Celebrate Recovery. He said, “Unless we enable [people] to identify their root issue and deal with it first, the rates of relapse are high. When they are able to deal with their root issues by offering forgiveness, making amends, and seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we find that large numbers are able to enter and maintain sobriety.” That is why the Church has the unique ability to make a difference in combating the opioid crisis.

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“We have to convince faith-based communities to get their hands dirty, to get involved and realize that this is an issue,” Benzio says. He suggests inviting laypeople to develop a working knowledge of dopamine, the brain chemical that provides the pleasure-inducing sensation many who use drugs are seeking. “There is only one [higher] power that can sever synapses in the brain that have been stimulated by a substance to achieve [a certain] dopamine level,” he adds, “and that’s the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Exactly how Christians appropriate the Spirit’s power to take on the opioid crisis will vary from case to case. The point, Benzio and Hager say, is that this needs to become a top-of-mind concern for the Church. But are North American churches up to the mission of addressing opioid use among their members? Pastors are in a unique position to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel to individuals struggling with addiction. Many are too ashamed to confess an addiction to pain medication. As the opioid crisis deepens, so must the response of the local church. If the Christian church has anything to offer those hurting from drug addiction, it is hope and community. I was only able to break the bondage of addiction over my life through the Power in the Name of Jesus.

Power in the Name of Jesus

Programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery have been extremely effective in changing lives, but it’s not always enough. Addressing the root of addiction is one of the most effective long-term solutions, which for Christians is about the heart. The church must be willing and capable of seeing those struggling with addiction as not merely a program of the church’s community outreach; these individuals are children of a God who loves them no matter their current condition. I believe America’s recovery can find its roots in the local church.

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That’s what love looks like. -St. Augustine

 

 

Partnering With Dentists and Oral Surgeons to Fight Opiate Addiction

From the blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA, posted July 25, 2018

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Reducing the reliance of doctors on potentially addictive opioid pain relievers has been one of the pillars of federal efforts to reverse the opioid crisis. Because many dental procedures such as extractions and other types of oral surgery often produce severe acute pain, dentists are among the largest prescribers of opioids. Thankfully, the dental profession has made significant progress in reducing opioid prescriptions. Two decades ago, when the opioid crisis was just starting, dentists accounted for 15.5 percent of all immediate-release opioid prescriptions; by 2012, they only wrote 6.4 percent of such prescriptions. Still, those in the oral health professions can play a key role in further improving the treatment of acute pain and making it safer.

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In March of this year, the American Dental Association (ADA) released a new policy on opiods, supporting limits on dosage and duration of opioid prescriptions and mandatory continuing education on their use, as well as recommending that dentists make use of their regional prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). This policy is an important step toward protecting patients and their families from the potential harms of opioids. Following a meeting between representatives of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), and the ADA, NIDCR director Martha Somerman and Dr. Volkow wrote an editorial in this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association about how a partnership between NIH and oral health practitioners can continue to alleviate the opioid overdose epidemic.

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Increased knowledge of opioid prescribing practices among dentists, as well as among emergency department physicians when managing acute dental pain, is an important research priority. While dentists have reduced their opioid prescriptions, recent studies suggest the same is not true of emergency department providers when patients have dental pain. A study of Medicaid recipients showed that physicians in the ER prescribed opioids for dental pain five times more often than dentists in their own practices, and nurse practitioners in the ER prescribed opioids three times as often. Understanding the ways opioids are prescribed and the decisions underlying opioid prescribing can inform new clinical guidelines and policies to reduce the risks of opioid misuse. 

Concluding Remarks

Dentists can play a role in minimizing opioid abuse through patient education, careful patient assessment and referral for substance abuse treatment when indicated, and using tools such as prescription monitoring programs. Research is needed to determine the optimal number of doses needed to treat dental-related pain. Besides reducing their prescribing of opioids, these practitioners can learn to screen for opioid misuse and opioid use disorders, ultimately referring patients to treatment when indicated. To this end, NIDCR plans to fund research studies of interventions in rural communities.

These practitioners cannot assume that their prescribing of opioids does not affect the opioid abuse problem in the United States. Dentists, along with other prescribers, take steps to identify problems and minimize prescription opioid abuse through greater prescriber and patient education; use of peer-reviewed recommendations for analgesia; and, when indicated, the tailoring of the appropriate and legitimate prescribing of opioids to adequately treat pain.