The NY Times has another article in its series on Suboxone.
Buprenorphine was developed as a safer alternative to methadone for treating heroin and painkiller addiction, a take-home medication that could be prescribed by doctors in offices rather than dispensed daily in clinics. But in some areas a de facto clinic scene, unregulated, has developed, and it has a split personality — nonprofit treatment programs versus moneymaking enterprises built by individual doctors, some with troubled records.
The Times profiles two practices [emphasis mine]:
The New York Times has visited and tracked the patients of two of the largest buprenorphine programs in this region, where addiction rates are high, for-profit clinics have proliferated, doctors go in and out of business and the black market is thriving.
Dr. Clark’s hectic, cluttered office in suburban Pittsburgh is an entrepreneurial venture with heart where the rumpled doctor dresses in sweatsuits, the boundary between patients and employees is razor thin, the requirements are minimal and the tolerance for missteps is maximal.
“I know on the surface it might look like a pill mill,” he said. “We’re seeing a fair number of patients, and they’re primarily receiving a prescription. But if you look deeper, you’ll see that we don’t use the medication in a vacuum. We encourage, we support, we don’t judge. There’s a kind of love.”
Sixty miles away, the more formal, structured treatment center at West Virginia University in Morgantown sits atop a hill, ensconced in a hospital complex and presided over by Dr. Carl R. Sullivan III, a career addictionologist who wears a white lab coat and stands professorially at the front of a classroom when he meets his patients in groups: “Are you clean? How many meetings have you been to?” he asks them.
Dr. Sullivan, 61, primarily treated alcoholism until “a spectacular explosion of prescription opioid drugs” starting around 2000. He considered opioid addiction “a hopeless disease,” with patients leaving rehab and then relapsing and sometimes dying, until he started prescribing Suboxone, the brand-name drug whose main ingredient is buprenorphine, as a maintenance therapy in 2004.
A little more on Dr. Carter:
“As you know, my pharmacist thinks you’re pretty much a joke, and he’s not filling your prescriptions,” one patient, James Markeley, said recently.
. . .
His troubles did not end with sobriety, though.
Pennsylvania suspended him for a month in 2010 because he failed to submit to three unannounced drug tests while on vacation. Ohio revoked his license in 2011 because he forged signatures verifying his attendance at 12-step meetings.
Both doctors are concerned about corruption in the business.
Dr. Sullivan is skeptical of the buprenorphine “empires” in Pittsburgh — though not of Dr. Clark specifically, whom he does not know — believing that they feed the black market and tar the medication’s reputation. Dr. Clark, in turn, is skeptical of “ivory tower” addiction programs with rigid rules and of doctors who, in his view, collude with the pharmaceutical industry.
“Big Pharma is in it for the super profits; we should be in it for the patients,” said Dr. Clark, who nonetheless became a buprenorphine doctor partly because he needed to dig himself out of a financial hole.
One more example of the financial incentives. This is Dr. Clark discussing one of his staff physicians:
“He told me he was feeling some heat in his area and needed to get out of town for a while,” Dr. Clark said.
After filing for bankruptcy protection with $1.5 million in debt early this year, the internist quit in May to run his own buprenorphine practice, saying he needed to make money fast, Dr. Clark said.
For its part, Reckitt Benckiser recruited Sullivan (who believes opiate addiction to have been hopeless before Suboxone) as a paid advocate and courted the shady Clark to prescribe, while also giving dark warnings about prescribing generics:
[Dr. Sullivan] became a paid treatment advocate for the manufacturer, Reckitt Benckiser, delivering, he estimated, 75 talks at $500 each. But, he said, “If the company didn’t pay me a nickel, I’d still promote Suboxone because in 2013, it’s the best thing that’s happened for the opioid addict.”
. . .
In 2008, a Reckitt Benckiser representative approached Dr. Clark at a children’s hospital, saying: “There’s this great medicine, Suboxone. Why not get certified? It doesn’t take much, and it’s a nice thing to add to your practice,” he said.
. . .
[Dr. Clark] said a Reckitt Benckiser representative cautioned him that he was courting trouble with the authorities by prescribing generic buprenorphine and not Suboxone.
- Addiction Treatment With a Dark Side (addictionandrecoverynews.wordpress.com)
- Reckitt Heroin-Abuse Drug Seen Luring Shire: Real M&A – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- At Clinics, Tumultuous Lives and Turbulent Care (nytimes.com)
- A Lifesaving Treatment, and a Killer (nytimes.com)