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A New Fix

Physicians and federal officials look at a new way to treat drug addiction.



There's more than one way to kick a heroin habit. At least, there is now.

Buprenorphine, a new pill-based method of treating heroin and painkiller addictions, has been available in the United States for two years but isn't widely used yet. Earlier this month, officials from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) held a forum at The Med to introduce county officials, drug counselors, and private physicians to the drug as an alternative to methadone.

Unlike methadone, a recovering addict can obtain buprenorphine from a pharmacy with a prescription. Methadone, the current drug treatment for opium addicts, must be distributed from a federally funded clinic. Currently, only six physicians in Shelby County are certified to prescribe buprenorphine, but officials from SAMHSA are hoping more local doctors will attend a credentialing session April 29th.

"Physicians have not been permitted to prescribe addiction medications from their offices for over 80 years," said Nick Reuter, a public analyst with SAMHSA. "Most of them are unaware of that major change."

Reuter said recovering addicts are less likely to abuse buprenorphine or overdose from it than methadone.

"Programs at the county level that currently do not dispense these medications could bring in a physician and treat up to 30 patients, [the maximum allowed per doctor]," said Reuter. "We're seeing a lot of that throughout the United States."

The medication's cost is a concern for county officials and counselors at low-income treatment facilities. A 30-day supply of buprenorphine costs about $194, according to a medical officer from SAMHSA. However, it is covered by TennCare.

"This is not a drug for the economically disadvantaged," said Mark, a recovering addict who spoke at the forum. His last name was withheld for privacy purposes.

Mark worked in the music business when he became addicted to opiates.

"A lot of people function, but they're still addicted," said Mark. "Over time, I realized I couldn't kick this alone, so I did a lot of research and found this was the best option."

Mark sought help from Richard Farmer, a psychiatrist at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, who prescribed him buprenorphine. He's now been clean for a year and three months.

"Methadone carries a high of its own," said Mark. "It's like trading one addiction for another. With buprenorphine, I did not feel a high. I could see an end."

For those eligible, Reuter said they have seen an 85-percent success rate.

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