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Among hurdles for those with opioid addictions: getting the drug to treat it

By Nina Feldman

WHYY Kaiser Health News via AP

Louis Morano knew what he needed, and he knew where to get it.

He made his way to a mobile medical clinic parked on a corner of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, in the geographical heart of the city’s overdose crisis. People call it “the bupe bus.”

Morano, 29, has done seven stints in rehab for opioid addiction in the past 15 years.

Buprenorphine is a drug that curbs cravings and treats the symptoms of withdrawal from opioid addiction. One of the common brand name drugs that contains it, Suboxone, blends buprenorphine with naloxone.

Combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, it is one of the three FDA-approved medicines considered the gold standard for opioid-addiction treatment.

Morano had tried Suboxone before — he had purchased some from a street dealer and had used it to get through his workday, when he couldn’t use heroin. It kept the misery of withdrawal sickness at bay. So he had a sense of how it would make him feel. He’d always sort of thought of it as a crutch. But after a slip following his latest stint in rehab, he said, he committed to recovery.

“I can’t do this anymore, and I need something,” Morano said.

The bupe bus — a project of Prevention Point Philadelphia, the city’s only syringe exchange program — is part of Philadelphia’s efforts to expand access to this particular form of medication-assisted treatment, known as MAT, for opioid addiction.

Morano was first in line at the mobile clinic.

When the doors of the bus heaved open, Dr. Ben Cocchiaro waved Morano inside, where they squeezed into a tiny exam room. Cocchiaro and Morano discussed how buprenorphine might help Morano’s recovery succeed this time, and whether he’d be open to seeing a therapist. Cocchiaro gave Morano instructions on how to take the medication, and then called a pharmacy to authorize a prescription.

To date, much of the research on barriers to buprenorphine access has focused on the fact that too few medical providers are certified to write the prescriptions. According to federal law, doctors must apply for a special waiver from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, to prescribe buprenorphine. To get the waiver, a doctor must undergo eight hours of training — and can prescribe the drug to a maximum of 30 patients at a time, to start. Given these constraints, many doctors don’t bother.

But pharmacists are also a part of the problem. Because they fill the prescriptions, pharmacists are the gatekeepers for the drug, and not all of them are willing to take on that role. Increasing pharmacists’ involvement in distributing buprenorphine might be just as important as persuading more doctors to prescribe it, according to Dan Ventricelli of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.

“We can write a bunch of prescriptions for people,” he said. “But if they don’t have a pharmacy and a pharmacist that’s willing to fill that medication for them, fill it consistently and have an open conversation with that patient throughout that treatment process, then we may end up with a bottleneck at the community pharmacy.”

Just a few blocks from the bupe bus in Kensington, Richard Ost owns an independent pharmacy. He said his store was one of the first in the neighborhood to stock buprenorphine. But after a while, Ost started noticing that people were not using the medication as directed — they were selling it instead.

Buprenorphine acts as a partial opioid agonist, which means it’s a low-grade opioid. When taken in pill or tablet form, it’s unlikely to cause the same feelings of euphoria as heroin would, but it might if it were dissolved and injected. Many people buy it on the street for the same reason Morano did: to keep from going into withdrawal between injecting heroin or fentanyl. Others buy it to try to quit using on their own.

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