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.

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“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.