Tag Archives: heroin

In the Weeds on Marijuana and WC

It’s a topic that gets much buzz – how will the cloud of legislation surrounding recreational and medical marijuana use affect businesses, specifically when it comes to compensability for workers’ compensation? I am sure you have all caught up on news about additional states voting to legalize marijuana for medical use and adult recreational use during the November 2016 election. Let’s take a look at those changes, as well as what action they may prompt to shake up the state and federal status quo.

After receiving certified results of a state recount, 2016 closed with Maine Gov. Paul LePage issuing a proclamation of the Referendum Question 1 vote that allows recreational use of marijuana by those at least 21 years of age. Maine joins Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia in voting to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. Arizona was the only state where voters rejected a legalization measure during the November election.

With the passage of ballot initiatives in Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota, medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico.

An additional 17 states have laws that only allow the use of “low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD)” products for specified medical conditions. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a summary of those state laws here.

Stickiness in the states

Despite the increase in the number of states that have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana, the impact on workers’ compensation claims was limited until about three years ago.

In 2014, New Mexico became the first state to have a state appellate court order a workers’ compensation insurance carrier to provide reimbursement to an injured worker for medical marijuana. The New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration began requiring employers and insurers to reimburse injured workers when the state’s healthcare provider fee schedule took effect Jan. 1, 2016. The trend continues.

In two recent decisions, the Appellate Division of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed two different administrative law judge (ALJ) awards reimbursing workers for their medical marijuana expenses, Bourgoin v. Twin Rivers Paper Co. and Noll v. Lepage Bakeries.

See also: Marijuana and Workers’ Comp  

On Dec. 15, 2016, an administrative law judge in New Jersey issued an order in Watson v. 84 Lumber requiring reimbursement of an injured worker for medical marijuana payment. It should be noted that this is a division level case, so this decision is not binding on other New Jersey courts. The case is not being appealed.

It is noteworthy that in each of the above cases:

  • Marijuana was recommended by physicians only after other treatment regimens for chronic pain were attempted without success, and
  • These judges were not persuaded by the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Federal haze

While there has been some activity on the federal side over the past year, it has not changed the fact that marijuana, even for medicinal use, violates federal law.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law because it is listed under Schedule I in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), along with other drugs such as heroin. Schedule I substances are illegal to distribute, prescribe, purchase or use outside of medical research due to “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S.” As a result of this status, physicians recommend the use of marijuana instead of prescribing it.

On July 19, 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) denied two petitions to reclassify marijuana, concluding that it continues to meet the criteria for control under Schedule I because:

  • Marijuana has a high potential for abuse. This is based on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) evaluation and additional data gathered by DEA.
  • Marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S. Using an established five-part test, it was determined that marijuana has no “currently accepted medical use” because, as detailed in HHS evaluation, the drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving its effectiveness; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.
  • Marijuana lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision. At present, there are no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved marijuana products, nor is marijuana under a New Drug Application (NDA) evaluation at the FDA for any indication.

Interestingly, the DEA noted that marijuana could not be placed in a schedule less restrictive than Schedule II in view of U.S. obligations under international drug control treaties.

Although marijuana is not being reclassified at this time, on Aug. 11, 2016 the DEA announced a policy change meant to increase research by expanding the number of DEA-registered facilities allowed to grow and distribute marijuana for FDA-authorized research purposes.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) marijuana enforcement policy is to allow states to create their own “strong, state-based enforcement efforts,” but DOJ reserves its right to challenge the states’ legalization laws at any time necessary.

Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) of 2016 that in Section 542 restricts federal law enforcement activity in states that allow medical marijuana cultivation, distribution and use. Now that voters in half of the states have voted for legalization of medical marijuana, will Congress take action to change its scheduling?

The new administration may change the broad leeway states have been given to regulate marijuana usage and sales.

  • President Trump has expressed varying views regarding medical and recreational marijuana over the years.
  • Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, has expressed opposition to medical and recreational marijuana.
  • Tom Price, a physician and nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, has also been a vocal opponent of legalization.

If the conflict between federal and state law is not resolved politically, the U.S. Supreme Court may have the last word. The high court last weighed in on marijuana in 2005. In an unsigned opinion issued March 2016, the high court refused to hear a request from Nebraska and Oklahoma to declare Colorado’s legalization of marijuana unconstitutional because it is against federal law and therefore violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which states federal law trumps state laws. Justices Alito and Thomas dissented. Will President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court make a difference?

See also: How to Think About Marijuana and Work  

Yes, the future of federal marijuana policy and enforcement remains hazy. What is clear is that employers contending with this complex and rapidly changing issue must understand the laws and relevant legal decisions pertaining to marijuana in each of the states where their business operates.

In such an uncertain time, we will continue to provide updates and perspective. We recommend seeking legal assistance to develop a sound company policy addressing the use and reimbursement of medical marijuana for on-the-job injuries.

A Heroin Vaccine — Is It Possible?

Yes, you read that right. A vaccine for heroin.

I first ran across this concept on Twitter last week. I saw a posting from @heroin_research about a heroin vaccine. I was trained by my parents, and through practical experience over the past 55+ years, I’ve learned that if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is. This sounded too good to be true. But, being The @RxProfessor, I had to check it out. And that led to a Saturday conversation with Caron Block.

Caron’s son has been in recovery from heroin for over four years. It has been a long journey. Unlike the new trend in heroin users, his abuse did not start with a legitimately prescribed opioid after an injury or surgery. It started with drinking himself to sleep in 8th grade, then escalation to marijuana, then meth, then cocaine, then heroin. Naloxone literally saved his life multiple times from an overdose death. He has had open-heart surgery for Endocarditis (a heart valve infection very common with heroin users). He was adjudged to be a “use till death” person given the nature of his genetic predisposition to addiction. By all accounts, the fact that he is still alive is a miracle. That he’s on his way this Fall to Columbia University after restarting his education at a community college is astounding. While his battle with addition will last a lifetime, his is a story of victory … achieved every single moment of every single day.

See also: Progress on Opioids — but Now Heroin?  

But Caron knew that her son’s victory was unfortunately not common. She had personal experience with death and devastation among friends and family. Many of his friends (past co-users) have died. And many still use. Rather than preaching to those still suffering from the addiction, he’s trying to lead by example. But it is frustrating. And overwhelming. And so that turned Caron into an evangelist for the work of Kim Janda, Ph.D., the Ely R. Callaway Jr. Professor of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), and his pursuit of immunopharmacotherapy. He is really smart, working initially on a cocaine vaccine, then a nicotine vaccine, then a methamphetamine vaccine, and now a heroin vaccine. Note that each drug requires it’s own unique vaccine, so a heroin vaccine will not be an opioid vaccine. But it’s certainly a step in that direction since the heroin vaccine deals with morphine, one of the two metabolites, along with  6-acetylmorphine or 6-AM, that come from heroin, which as a chemical actually only lasts for about 30 seconds in the body.

If you have 47 minutes available, watch this YouTube video titled “Heroin Vaccine and Understanding Addiction with Dr. Kim Janda & Caron Block.” If you only have 5 minutes, a June 28, 2016 article published by Science News entitled “Vaccines could counter addictive opioids” is a detailed accounting of the vaccine. Included is a sobering statistic:

More than 60 percent of people with addiction experience relapse within the first year after they are discharged from treatment

In essence, the heroin vaccine “trains the immune system to usher the drugs out of the body before they can reach the brain.” Just like how all vaccines work, it creates antibodies and turns the immune system into the front-line defense. In this case, it keeps heroin away from the brain. The “active vaccination” is primarily to help people get through rehab/detox or to stay clean afterwards (even if they relapse, the vaccine has made heroin an enemy of the body and they can’t get the reward effects of the drug). Importantly, the vaccine is only valuable to those who desire to defeat their addiction, so vaccine recipients would need to be carefully vetted. The expectation is three to four boosts would be needed every two weeks to build up the antibodies that could last for several months. For more details, please read the Science News article.

According to a January 2015 TIME magazine article

In 2013, preclinical trials of the drug on heroin-addicted rats showed those vaccinated didn’t relapse into addiction and were not hooked by high amounts of heroin in their system. “It’s really dramatic,” says Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) who was involved in the heroin vaccine research. “You can inject a rat with 10 times the dose of heroin that a normal rat [could handle] and they just look at you like nothing happened. It’s extraordinary.

In 2015 TSRI and Dr. Janda received a $1.6M grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), with the potential of three additional years of funding, to support pre-clinical trials of the heroin vaccine. That is really good news. TSRI has a very specific plan forward:

  • Pre-clinical meeting with the FDA
  • Production of the vaccine under cGMP
  • Animal toxicity studies (2 species)
  • Efficacy study in another animal model (likely primate)
  • IND filing with the FDA prior to initiating human trials

The corresponding bad news is that a lot more money will be required to take it to human trials and ultimately to FDA approval and production. They have estimated a minimum of $10.5M and 3 years to get through Phase II trials, after which they’ll need even more money and time for Phase III trials, NDA application, FDA review and approval. There are a lot of financial headwinds for a variety of reasons (if you consider a heroin vaccine reducing demand, you can probably speculate on who might not be supportive). Caron is doing her part with a Facebook page and the aforementioned@heroin_research on Twitter.

Dr. Janda believes that addiction is perceived to be a moral failing (of the individual or society as a whole) where it should be seen as a brain disease. Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, believes in “treating addiction like a disease that needs to be managed, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, with a multiplicity of treatment options would help addicts find a treatment that works well for them over the long haul.” That stigma certainly doesn’t help fundraising.

See also: Opioids Are the Opiates of the Masses  

I’m an ALL OF THE ABOVE kind of person. For any complex multi-dimensional issue, there is no single solution. We need Medication Assisted Treatment. And greater access to substance abuse and mental illness treatment facilitated by the series of bills recently signed into law (“What will $180 Million Buy Us?“). And the use of PDMPs to identify prescription drug abuse/misuse. And the trending yet controversial “safe spaces” for heroin users to be guaranteed clean needles and clinical oversight (and, hopefully at some point, a recognition for the need to change). And any number of other initiatives around the country focused to combat the dual epidemics of painkiller and heroin abuse.

At this point, I’m a believer that this is not “too good to be true.” But it might not ever be one of the solutions available without other evangelists and dollars to fund the research to validate whether this really works on people.

Are you willing to be an evangelist? Do you know somebody who would be willing to be an evangelist? Do you have access to research dollars? If the answer to any of those questions is “yes”, let me know. Or contact Caron (@heroin_research). Or contact Christopher Lee (clee@scripps.edu) at TSRI. It would be yet another tragedy for this vaccine to hit a dead-end because of funding. If it truly does work, this should be one of the biggest no-brainers in our lifetime.

The Next Opioid Epidemic: Fentanyl

Fentanyl has been in the news:

In 2014, it began being reported on the U.S. East Coast that heroin was being laced with fentanyl, creating a combination that is “untenably addictive.”

The Sacramento Bee reported in April that 51 overdoses, including 11 deaths, had been reported thus far in the Sacramento area in 2016; toxicologists tied eight of the deaths directly to fentanyl (watch the short video in the article that describes “death as collateral damage” to the drug dealers interested in market dominance).

Later in April, the L.A. Times reported the issue had migrated to the San Francisco area, where fentanyl pills made to look like Norco were a primary culprit.

The chief health officer in British Columbia proclaimed a Canadian public health emergency because of more than 200 overdose deaths during the first three months of 2016; a large portion of them involved “greenish pills purporting to be OxyContin 80 mg tablets.”

In June, it was confirmed that Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, unbelievable because he was an outspoken advocate of clean living (from having a “swear jar” to not consuming alcohol)

One of the common threads throughout these stories is China’s involvement. The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article on June 23 titled “China’s Role in U.S. Opioid Crisis.” The opening paragraph sets the stage:

Last spring, Chinese customs agents seized 70 kilograms of the narcotics fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl hidden in a cargo container for Mexico. The synthetic opium-like drugs were so potent that six of the agents became ill after handling them. One fell into a coma.

The article goes on to describe how fentanyl often is disguised as hydrocodone and Xanax on the black market — dangerous drugs by themselves but not nearly as potent or fatal as fentanyl. Because China does not regulate fentanyl or analogs used to create fentanyl, there is a significant financial incentive for the drug dealers — $810 of materials can create 25 grams of fentanyl and yield as much as $800,000 in pills sold on the black market.

See also: Opioids Are the Opiates of the Masses

According to the Canadian Globe’s expose on the issue (an excellent look at the black market), accessing fentanyl can be as easy as “Sign up for an account, choose a method of payment, and receive the package in three to four business days.” Reinforcing the financial model: “A kilogram ordered over the internet – an amount equal in weight to a medium-sized cantaloupe – sells on the street in Calgary for $20 million, making it a drug dealer’s dream.”

So, fentanyl is a problem. It’s 25 to 50 times more potent than morphine. It’s highly addictive. It’s available fairly easily on the black market. And it is prescribed by doctors. Way too often.

Approved by the FDA and on script pads supplied by the DEA, its federal legitimacy adds to the lack of stigma associated with use. Which is one reason why I think Prince could rationalize his use. A doctor likely prescribed it for his chronic pain — and other patients fall into that same trap (with fentanyl and other dangerous prescription drugs).

According to the FDA’s own warnings (as reported on drugs.com):

Because of the risks of addiction, abuse and misuse with opioids, even at recommended doses, and because of the greater risks of overdose and death with extended-release opioid formulations, reserve Fentanyl Transdermal system for use in patients for whom alternative treatment options (e.g., non-opioid analgesics or immediate-release opioids) are ineffective, not tolerated or would be otherwise inadequate to provide sufficient management of pain.

See also: How to Help Reverse the Opioid Epidemic  

In my opinion, fentanyl should be used to help people die with dignity during end-of-life care. Period. It’s that dangerous. And yet we see it being prescribed, used and paid for.

Month. After. Month.

If you are prescribing fentanyl: Why?

If you are being prescribed fentanyl: Why?

If you are paying for someone’s fentanyl: Why?

Too many people are overdosing and dying not to ask a simple question: Why?

Opioids Are the Opiates of the Masses

One day in 2014, before most people could even spell “opioids” (two “i’s), the CEO of a company named Healthentic asked me to review a white paper based on the output of its new analytics tool. Healthentic’s tool is far more focused on the “80” of the “80-20” rule than competing tools are. So, rather than drowning readers in data, the tool is supposed to help certain figures jump off the pages and lead to action.

As my role in life appears to be the thankless task of finding errors in other people’s work, I was pleasantly surprised that Healthentic called me to plausibility-check the tool early in the process, rather than disseminate it and wait for me to publish “highlights” of my analysis after the fact, as I am wont to do.

As usual, I noticed some highly suspect information. In this case, it was prescriptions for Tramadol, Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. With my usual charm, grace and humility, I said: “These figures can’t possibly be right. This isn’t an NFL team in constant pain. If these figures were correct, it would mean that 40% of their employees filled a prescription for a synthetic opioid in a single year.” We rechecked the figure and the raw data several times. And yet the original statistic refused to bend. It was accurate.

See also: Paging Dr. Evil: The War Over Opioids

Ironically, the particular Healthentic customer profiled in the white paper was obsessed with employee health. Its staff could recite how many employees had high blood pressure or high cholesterol, participated in the “steps challenge” or the “biggest loser contest” or didn’t buckle their seat belts. But opiates and synthetic opioids — the elephant in the room capable of magnitudes more damage to employee health and productivity than any of the wellness vendor siren songs — had been completely overlooked.

In the days that followed, we talked through four possible scenarios and ruled out three:

  1. Employees were being injured due to safety hazards and accidents — but the company’s OSHA reports were clean and, in any event, those prescriptions would have shown up in workers’ compensation, not group benefits;
  2. Certain local doctors were prescribing way too many of these pills — but the prescriptions seemed to be coming from many different doctors;
  3. Employees were reselling their prescription meds — but if that were the case they’d have enough sense not to purchase these pills through the PBM;
  4. A sizable number of employees were at-risk or already addicted to opiates.

It was definitely the last. Little did we know this was the leading edge of the belatedly discovered synthetic opioid epidemic.

Healthentic analysis consistently finds that opioids are some of the most prescribed drugs for all employers. “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” has become: “Take some Oxy and text me in the morning.” It wasn’t hard for a person with a few dental or medical procedures to have several months’ supply of the drug.

Pain is no laughing matter. It is human nature to ease suffering. But the cost and consequences of treating chronic pain so freely with opioids is shockingly high. Not a week goes by without more national news being made on the topic, such as Prince’s death. Of course it isn’t just famous people who are susceptible. Opioids — synthetically designed cousins of heroin — are so addictive there’s a Super Bowl commercial for another drug to treat constipation from chronic use. Obviously a market has to be quite sizable to merit a Super Bowl ad.

See also: Progress on Opioids — but Now Heroin?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Pursuing early detection of a large supply of opioids and putting treatment goals in place will help a great deal in avoiding chronic use and addiction. Employers can help to head off chronic use before it turns into addiction. Independent analysis of your data should identify the three key risk factors for this population:

  1. a 45-day or greater supply;
  2. 10 or more prescription refills; or
  3. overlapping synthetic opioid and benzodiazepine prescriptions.

As brokers and employers, you can flag this population to the medical carriers and providers. You yourselves won’t be aware who is at risk, in conformance with the new CDC guidelines.

I emphasize the word “independent” because of how far behind the curve the payers are. One insurance carrier told an employer not to worry about the 150 people Healthentic had tagged for being at risk for chronic opioid use. “We know about these people. They are in our medication compliance program. Most are on palliative care.” That would be an obvious whopper even if these employees had worked at Chernobyl, and a quick analysis confirmed there wasn’t a single palliative care referral in the group.

Employers’ obsession with wellness, and carriers’ unwillingness to run the data, is great for my business, and for Healthentic’s. Unfortunately, it is not so great for employees at risk for opioid addiction. The only good news is that at least they won’t be constipated.

23 Questions on the Use of Narcotics

During my Feb. 23  webinar titled “History of Heroin Use: Impact on Prescription Drug Abuse,” there were a series of questions that I could not address during the Q&A time. In fact, 23 questions. I finally finished my written responses, and One Call Care University is distributing them to the 938 confirmed attendees of the webinar. However, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to make them more broadly available here.

BTW, because of the very positive feedback from attendees, One Call Care University has scheduled another webinar on the same subject on Aug. 25 (obviously with some updated content). I appreciate their support. So, if you missed the Feb. 23 webinar, pencil in Aug. 25 on your calendar.

See Also: Progress on Opioids–but Now Heroin?

Also, in case you didn’t notice, I have written two heroin-related blogposts since February 23 that provide even more context – “Breaking Point: Heroin in America” and “The Heroin Triangle … in My Hometown.”

And now, the 23 questions … and answers. I would appreciate any additional insights you may have, so I can continue to expand my perspective and understanding, so feel free to submit comments.

  1. Will the recent conviction of Dr. Tseng in the overdose death of three patients have an impact on physicians dispensing narcotics? I certainly hope so. It is a very high-profile prosecution and conviction of a physician who was prescribing for the benefit of her pocketbook and not for the patients. As with other high-profile events, this could be used as a launching point for even further prosecution (beyond the continuing investigations that typically result in surrendering MD or DEA licenses). Whether this affects the opinions (and actions) of actual prescribers, only time will tell.
  2. As a workers’ comp adjuster, I received a request for approval of Narcan for an injured worker who is taking morphine medications. It was denied, but what would be the ramifications of approving Narcan to a workers’ comp injured worker? Would there be a chance of getting a death claim if the injured worker died after the Narcan dose? I’d be interested in knowing the rationale for denial – was it deemed unrelated/non-compensable, or were there concerns about its medical efficacy, or was it a concern along the lines of your second question as to the implications or liability? The latter is an interesting question, because by approving Narcan it could be extrapolated that you know the dangers of the drugs for which you’re approving an antidote. On the other hand, if you don’t approve the Narcan, did you not perform the necessary due diligence to ensure the patient didn’t die from an overdose. These are legal questions – I’m not an attorney, so you should probably consult yours – but I could see both respective questions and answers creating issues. Ultimately, the best thing that can be done for the patient/injured worker is to help him taper from the dangerous drugs he’s using to a treatment that does not introduce the possible side-effect of death (i.e., remove the need for Narcan by removing the drugs). As I mentioned on the webinar, we’ve made a mess, and now we have to clean it up. I believe the cleaning up process is going to be a major focus for many years to come.
  3. What can be done about the physicians who are ordering unnecessary narcotics such as hydrocodone and oxycodone and seem to be the majority? It’s upsetting when a patient goes to an urgent care and is given narcotics for simple injuries such as a small laceration to a finger, or a bumped toe – how and why is this happening? Part of the solution is better education for prescribers – they should be informed of all treatment options and focus on those with the least amount of negative side effects that helps the patient (which may mean not giving patients the drugs they think they need). Part of it is better education for the patient – own your healthcare, ask questions and if the side effects are worse than the original malady then do your own research (plenty of free resources on the Internet). Part of it is the pharmacy/pharmacist/PBM – leverage common sense (and automated triggers) to connect the potency of the drugs to the illness/injury being treated. Part of it has to be legislated – mandatory access of PDMPs where real-time access is available, CME for doctors to ensure they know everything they need to about the treatment of pain, investigations by the DEA and state and local enforcement, restrictions on physician dispensing. Ultimately, prescribing behavior needs to change. But putting the responsibility solely on the prescriber is not sufficient.
  4. How do you view chronic use of Tramadol? Tramadol was added as a Schedule IV drug as of Aug. 18, 2014. Prior to then, it had not been scheduled (i.e. was not a controlled substance). The DEA changed the classification because the long-time arguments were all disproved: that people can’t get addicted, there is no withdrawal process, and there is no possibility of overdose. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck and smells like a duck – it’s a duck. More research showed that Tramadol quacked and walked and smelled like a narcotic. That said, it’s less potent and has less serious side effects than Schedule II (e.g. oxycodone, methadone) or Schedule III (e.g. Vicodin, Tylenol with Codeine). Per all EBM guidelines, long-term use of narcotics can be supported if the patient has exhausted all conservative non-pharma and pharma treatment, has adequate pain control and levels of function/quality of life and is on the lowest possible dosage. That obviously leaves open the possibility of long-term use, but the bar is fairly high. Anybody in this position should talk with a doctor.
  5. How do you view long-term use of Flexeril (Benzodiazepine)? Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) is a muscle relaxant. While it is less dangerous than Soma (carisoprodol), the side effects from any muscle relaxant can be dangerous (check out my favorite website’s assessment). In general, muscle relaxants are not recommended for long-term use, but, as with the above question on Tramadol, use should be based on the effects (positive and negative) to the patient and whether there are treatment options (non-pharma and pharma) that might equally resolve the condition without the dangers. Anybody in this position should talk with a doctor.
  6. What do we tell patients who have chronic back pain, who have failed all conservative treatment and who are unable to obtain strong-enough medication for short-term exacerbations, and their physician will not prescribe any narcotic? What choice do they have but to seek street drugs? This is the tricky part – not restricting access to drugs to the point that people who really need them can’t get them. That is often the concern raised by advocates for opioids. If the patient has not shown signs of abuse (e.g. running out of their 30-day supply in 22 days, doctor/pharmacy shopping, using illicit drugs or non-medical prescription drugs) then the doctor should consider prescribing the lowest possible dosage to resolve the issue, whether it’s chronic pain or momentary exacerbations. That prescription should be accompanied by accountability tools like pill counts and random drug tests and opioid treatment agreements. And it should also be accompanied by counseling to address the psychosocial needs of the patients (e.g. giving them methods to cope with the pain, helping them deal with problematic family situations, providing vocational rehab to provide some work outlet). In my mind, this decision starts and ends with an honest and transparent dialogue between the doctor and patient. If the patient doesn’t feel listened to, or the doctor feels like the patient isn’t being honest, bad decisions can be made. If, after all these controls have been introduced, the doctor still doesn’t feel like narcotics are the answer, then the patient should likely solicit a second opinion. Of course, in workers’ comp, that would process through the payer (carrier, TPA, self-insured) … So the circle of honest and transparent dialogue also needs to include them.
  7. Have you seen correlation for suicide for people taking Xanax and drinking alcohol? The biggest concern in combining Xanax and alcohol is accidental death from side effects such as slowed respiration and heart rates and seizures. Severe depression is another potential side effect, which could certainly lead to a suicide attempt. Suicidal thoughts as a specific side effect are not nearly as common as just going to sleep and never waking up again. My suggestion? Never mix alcohol with any opioid, benzodiazepine or muscle relaxant. Period.
  8. Do you think that decreasing the use of prescription opioids will just push more people to street heroin? It already has. And that is why we have concurrent epidemics of prescription painkiller abuse and heroin. For those who have become dependent or addicted to opioids, they need to be helped by a methodical tapering process to other methods for resolving their pain and non-pharma ways to deal with that pain (e.g. yoga, stretching exercises, an active lifestyle) and psychological treatment (e.g. CBT, establishing coping mechanisms). It is inhumane to remove drugs, especially those with high possibility of abuse and addiction, and not replace them with other mechanisms to treat their physical and psychological pain. Just detoxing or removing access will likely just force patients into finding other methods to self-medicate (heroin or other illicit drugs, alcohol, etc.) So, the answer to this Rubik’s Cube is difficult because only removing supply of opioids could create unintended consequences that could be as bad or even worse than the original problem.
  9. Why aren’t MDs (particularly pain management specialists) held more accountable for addiction? Isn’t it malpractice? That argument could certainly be made. Doctors, in general, are given great latitude to practice the art of medicine. That latitude has often resulted in great treatment that would have otherwise not been tried – the discovery of penicillin, the transition of minoxidil (Rogaine) from high blood pressure to hair growth, any number of treatments for cancer. But with latitude comes responsibility for bad choices, and once discovered taking an alternate path. At this point, it could not be argued that opioids are very dangerous and overused and that extreme care is needed to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks. So why do physicians/prescribers, including pain management specialists, often still prescribe when the evidence is clear? And why aren’t they held accountable? We’re seeing increasing accountability by the DEA, state and local law enforcement who are actively pursuing “pill mills” and inappropriate prescribing patterns. We’re seeing increasing accountability from the use of PDMPs and prescribing profiles from PBMs to target high-quantity prescribers. We’re certainly seeing increasing accountability from investigative media who are searching for stories. When will that translate into medical malpractice (defined as “any act or omission by a physician during treatment of a patient that deviates from accepted norms of practice in the medical community and causes an injury to the patient”) is anyone’s guess, but I can see that as a natural consequence over time by patients and their attorneys.
  10. What can be done to report opioid abuse? Each state’s PDMP (prescription drug monitoring program) is a macro way of recognizing abuse and misuse by patients and prescribers — some states have combined data. However, for now, access is limited to prescribers, pharmacists and in some cases law enforcement. So the primary means of identifying abuse and misuse will be the prescriber and family/friends. So how do they report it, and to whom? The first step should be intervening directly with the abuser/misuser to help her recognize, admit and enact changes to stop her substance abuse. That intervention may require involving a professional in substance abuse or mental health. If the abuser will not admit there is a problem, the next step will be determined by the level of abuse, illegality and connectedness. If you know someone who is abusing opioids or other dangerous drugs, and he won’t respond to your private conversations about the issue, then engage with a professional.
  11. If Rx opioids are intended for post-surgical pain and end of life, why do doctors prescribe them for WC back injuries with no end game plan in sight, and why won’t the WC judges  get involved? Why are doctors not held accountable for this problem? As mentioned in an earlier answer, the motivations for prescribing and using outside the on-label uses for these drugs can be varying. As can the accountability. But I think that is changing as doctors become more aware of the epidemic and their role in it. I have seen a generational shift by new doctors who attended medical school, while media including USA Today and CNN have ensured the general population knows we have a problem. The doctors who were in practice or in medical school during the mid-1990s when advocates complained of opioid phobia and under-treatment of pain are coming to a similar conclusion. By no means has there been enough education yet, or conversion of prescribing behaviors, but pressure from the White House to the governor’s house to a mom’s house is certainly creating momentum toward appropriate use. Those of us who serve as educators will continue to be unrelenting in the battle for hearts and minds, but ultimately it comes down to individual decisions by both prescribers and patients to do the right thing.
  12. Do you know if authorities who arrested Tseng confiscated the $5 million she made? I’ve not seen any evidence they did.
  13. Why do people snort pills vs. taking them normally? Drugs like OxyContin and Opana are ER (extended release) and formulated to take effect over a period of 10 to 12 hours. That does not provide the intense and immediate high desired by people addicted to or dependent upon heroin-type euphoria. When pills are crushed and snorted or injected, users bypass the wait associated with the extended release. Abuse deterrent formulations are an important component to help make the high more difficult to obtain. I spoke at a summit on Abuse Deterrence in Alexandria, VA, on March 19, so be watching for a post on what I learned from the speakers prior to my presentation.
  14. Is Demerol similar to or it is also an opioid? Similar to morphine? Demerol (meperidine) is indeed an opioid. Morphine is 10 times more potent than Demerol, however it is NOT recommended for palliative care (i.e. for chronic pain). According to drugs.com, it has 73 major, 701 moderate and seven minor drug interactions along with 16 disease interactions. So it’s a very complicated drug.
  15. What do you recommend someone take with a chronic illness that is not life-threatening? There are many people who take, appropriately, prescription drugs to manage chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and a variety of other ailments – and without those drugs, their health (and often their life expectancy) would be compromised. Chronic pain, physical or psychological, is real. And unique to each individual, both in the pain itself and the ability to manage it. Which means the treatment is often unique for that specific individual, and therefore the road map can be filled with trial and error. In some cases, chronic pain can be appropriately managed by prescription drugs. But likely that isn’t the only method for management, and in some cases prescription drugs create more issues (i.e. side effects) than they solve. Finding a pain management clinician who believes in the BioPsychoSocial model and thinks drugs are used only after all conservative options are exhausted is key. Following is a list of alternative treatments that is at least a starting point: Physical – An active lifestyle; seven to eight hours of sleep each night; Proper nutrition and weight management; Alternative treatments like acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga; Reducing or removinge alcohol consumption; Smoking cessation. Psychological – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to adjust attitudes about pain; Develop coping mechanisms through methods like deep breathing, meditation, biofeedback; Dealing with the anxiety or depression that often comes with chronic pain; Developing a support system of family and friends; Decreasing avoidance by enhancing the “fight” attitude; Reducing stress. For further reading, two good articles can be found at http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/11-tips-for-living-with-chronic-pain and http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/576064
  16. How long does a person need to be on methadone for weaning? That varies on the person, the complexity and scope of the drug regimen being weaned and any co-morbidities that might complicate the process. One clinical resource I’ve read says a patient with significant risks can be tapered in a closely monitored environment over seven to 14 days, but typically it’s a slow process of 5% to 10% declination every one to two weeks (so how long it takes depends upon the starting dosage).
  17. Many providers order opioids in workers’ comp and are not willing to budge in discontinuing/weaning these medications. What recommendations do you have to assist in this process? In some cases, opioids are appropriate, so don’t automatically assume all opioids (and the corresponding drugs/classifications to address side effects) are inappropriate. If the opioids are creating more harm than good (based on levels of activity, quality of life, number/severity of side effects, subjective assessment of pain), and if evidence-based medicine indicates there are other treatment options that should be tried, that information should be relayed to the prescriber. If the prescriber will not talk to anyone, or does not accept the evidence of a better way, then the goal would be to either compel the prescriber to change the drug regimen or to change to a different provider. The path for that is different for each jurisdiction and often includes utilization review, independent medical exam (IME), forcing a provider change, a legal challenge, reporting the provider to the state’s medical association or discussion directly with the injured worker. First, every effort should be made to present objective, clinical evidence in a collegial manner to the prescriber to help him see things differently. If, given the evidence and the chance to review, the prescriber still refuses to listen or change then there is ample evidence of your due diligence that will demonstrate your desire to do the right thing for the injured worker.
  18. I have been informed that once a person is on meth he always goes back. People are never able to get off it. Is that true? If not, do you know the statistics for successful results? There are circumstances where somebody could successfully detox and stay off meth, but it is so addictive that the odds are high they will relapse or die. I found a statistic that 93% of those in rehab for meth addiction relapse, and the national rate of recovery is 16% to 0%. This article provides a good overview: http://luxury.rehabs.com/crystal-meth-addiction/recovery-statistics/.
  19. Is Hep C a germ that develops or is it an actual virus passed by dirty needles? Hepatitis C is a “virus (a type of germ) that causes liver disease.” From my study of opioids and heroin, it’s clear that Hep C can be a direct result of heroin use because of shared needles. “Dirty needles” typically means ones that have been contaminated by bacteria or blood residue from previous user(s) of that needle, and that can certainly be a method for addicts who are scrounging for resources (like needles) to continue their habit. Dirty needles are one reason why communities may have a “clean needle” program. Which is an interesting conversation – does providing clean needles encourage heroin use, or is it a helpful precaution? For more information, this can be a helpful resource: http://health.williams.edu/keephealthy/general-health-concerns/hepatitis-c/.
  20. What is your take on nurse-monitored injection sites, and have they been found to decrease community outbreaks of disease? What have been some of the community concerns related to these sites? This is a trend I’ve read about, not only in the U.S. (Indiana’s response to the Hepatitis C outbreak because of heroin abuse is a needle exchange program via Senate Enrolled Act 461) but abroad (Canada, Portugal, Netherlands). The programs are often called “injection rooms” or “safe havens” or “needle exchanges,” sometimes even coming with outright legalization or decriminalization of drugs like heroin. Concerns are whether providing these options legitimizes use and therefore enables the addicts. Obviously, the preference would be to help people rid themselves of addiction and corresponding behavior. As far as results, studies in Portugal indicate decriminalization has not affected drug usage but has dramatically decreased drug-related pathologies like STD and Hep C and HIV. For more information about that, please read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_policy_of_Portugal.
  21. So what is the generally correct progression or step down in using an opioid after surgery? What would be a “pre-red flag”? Step therapy is going to be directly related to the level of pain associated with the effects of the surgery or injury. In some cases, that could be one to two days with a rapid de-escalation (e.g. Percocet to Tramadol to Ibuprofen). In other cases, where the trauma is significant or followed by painful physical therapy, step therapy could be two to three weeks or even months. Not only is the titration related to the severity of the pain, but so is the tolerance to pain or the side effects by the patient (e.g. the constipation is enough for the patient to want something different). Following are some “pre-red flags” that you might consider: Did the provider prescribe an unusually high days’ supply or quantity (e.g. a 30-day supply or 60 pills)? Did the patient run out of supply before the next office visit? Is there no evidence in the provider’s notes that a discussion occurred with the patient on the tapering process (i.e. articulating the exit strategy)? Was there a tapering attempted, but the patient did not respond well? Instead of tapering down (e.g. 20mg to 10mg, Percocet to Tramadol) is the potency increasing (Percocet to OxyContin)? Is it clear that the patient is not moving toward therapy and activity per expectations? In other words, “pre-red flags” are going to be gleaned from the provider’s notes during and post-surgery and prescribing patterns.
  22. Have you seen Suboxone prescribed as a painkiller vs. a manner by which to wean off heroin? What are your thoughts on Suboxone? The FDA is very clear in its labeling – “SUBOXONE sublingual film is a partial-opioid agonist indicated for treatment of opioid dependence.” Therefore, use of Suboxone for pain is considered off-label. Typically, the FDA approves uses (on-label) where the manufacturer can clearly document the benefits of use for a specific condition, so being considered off-label means the evidence was either not clear or not presented. There are many drugs prescribed off-label (the FDA allows off-label use, only restricting manufacturers from advertising or advocating off-label use), and Suboxone certainly qualifies. For all of the labeling details, go to http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/drugsatfda. Interestingly, Butrans is another buprenorphine formulation that has been approved “for the management of pain severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate.” There are some benefits to both in their built-in abuse deterrence mechanisms. While they’re not 100% airtight, they do put enough obstacles in place to make abuse more difficult (although Suboxone is highly abused in prisons). The concern I’ve heard from payers is that these drugs do not facilitate the tapering of opioids, so they are just added to the overall drug regimen, and they are much more expensive than many of the generic opioids, so reconciliation of therapeutic value vs. financial value is troublesome. Unfortunately, abuse deterrent mechanisms are not as widely available for generics as for name brands My personal opinion is there are less expensive treatment options than Suboxone, so it should be reserved for exceptions.
  23. Do you believe that legislation will be written in the near future that will penalize health providers if they exceed recommended narcotic treatment guidelines? Public policy is not only something based on evidence but also on politics. There certainly are enough treatment guidelines available from a variety of sources that indicate thresholds and areas of concern that would highlight abuse while protecting access to patients who receive benefits. Unfortunately, many of those guidelines don’t come with the necessary mandates or penalties for non-adherence. There are powerful lobbyists employed to maintain the status quo. At some point, I think the evidence of death and destruction from our prescription drug abuse epidemic will overwhelm the lobbyists and public policy will not only create mandates but also stronger enforcement mechanisms. The momentum is clearly on the side of more oversight. And it would not surprise me if personal injury lawyers start issuing more lawsuits and medical malpractice to rid the medical practice of the bad actors. Until then, it’s up to the DEA and state/local law enforcement to find and prosecute inappropriate prescribers, to provide help to substance abusers and to educate everybody of the dangers.