At forum, Levin and Hatch hail success of drug to combat heroin/opioid addiction and discuss methods to expand access

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

WASHINGTON – At a Senate forum today, Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hailed the success of buprenorphine, a medication that helps to block the craving for heroin, and they talked to public health officials, physicians, and patients about what steps can be taken to increase the number of patients who have access to the medication.

“We’ve heard remarkable stories of success with buprenorphine treatment, of lives saved and families rebuilt from the ravages of addiction,” Levin said. “But we have also heard stories of frustration at the fact that many patients want this treatment but can’t get it, and we need to remove those hurdles. Today’s forum was an important step in finding way to get more patients the treatment they need”

“On average, 23 Utahns die each month from prescription opioid-related deaths, most of which are overdoses. This is alarming, and deserves serious attention,” Hatch said.  “As we heard today and what I hear from Utah doctors routinely is that the use of buprenorphine to help combat opiod abuse has been an incredible success. I was proud to join with Senator Levin in championing its use nearly 15 years ago, and I look forward to continuing to work with him and others to continue to build upon the progress we’ve made since then.”

Video of the forum is available on Levin's YouTube channel.                

For more than 15 years, Levin and Hatch have worked together to help patients gain access to buprenorphine. The senators sponsored a 2000 law, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act (DATA 2000), that made it legal for physicians to prescribe the medication to up to 30 patients at a time in their offices, and the FDA approved its use in 2002. In 2006, the senators held a forum to examine the patient limit, and subsequently led the enactment of legislation to increase the patient limit from 30 to 100.

As the epidemic of heroin and other opioids has continued to spread to communities across the country, the senators were interested in looking at what obstacles have prevented even greater numbers of patients from receiving buprenorphine treatment.  They convened today’s forum to look at buprenorphine’s success since FDA approval; to examine current usage statistics; to discuss impediments that prevent greater access to buprenorphine; and to explore legislative and agency changes that could help to expand access.

“We are not powerless against our Nation’s opioid epidemic,” said White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Acting Director Michael Botticelli. “Science clearly demonstrates that substance use disorders are a disease of the brain that can be prevented, treated, and from which one can recover.  While law enforcement will always play a role in protecting our communities from drug related violence, at the end of the day we cannot incarcerate our way out of this challenge.  Treatment – including the use of medication-assisted therapies – saves lives and guides thousands of Americans into recovery, while making our communities safer.”

The senators have heard from many physicians about the challenges to expanding treatment, including the shortage of doctors certified to prescribe buprenorphine, the limitation of the patient cap, and limits that Medicaid and insurance companies put on coverage of buprenorphine. At the forum, Sen. Levin cited statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that illustrate this challenge: there are 25,388 physicians certified to prescribe buprenorphine, compared to nearly 625,000 physicians who are eligible for certification --- just 4% of eligible physicians. Further, just 5,300 primary care physicians – or 2.5 percent of all primary care doctors – are certified, and only 1,200 addiction specialists, or less than one-third of the total who are eligible.

At today’s forum, all of the participants agreed that either increasing or eliminating the patient limit would be a significant step forward.

Participants in today’s forum included:

  • Mr. Michael Botticelli, Acting Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, National Institute of Drug Abuse
  • Dr. Westley Clark, Director, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment
  • Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, Chief Medical Officer, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Medical Director, Phoenix House Foundation; President, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing
  • Dr. John Kitzmiller, Certified Buprenorphine Prescriber, Lake Orion, Michigan
  • Ms. Colleen LaBelle, Program Director, State Technical Assistance Treatment Expansion Office Based Opioid Treatment with Buprenorphine 
  • Dr. Corey Waller, Certified Buprenorphine Prescriber, Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Two patients in recovery

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