My son played on a neighborhood little league team for several years. I have such sweet memories of little boys in baseball uniforms lined up on the bench singing cheers while they waited their turns to go to bat. The two devoted dads who worked together coaching the team were a gentle presence in the background of my family’s life every spring for years. One might hope that the love and attention those fathers invested in their sons and their teammates might confer some special protection from life’s tragedies, but the opioid epidemic spares no hostages, and last year, one of those singing little boys from so many years ago – the son of one of the coaches – died of a drug overdose.
President Trump has punted on how to stop the epidemic, one he finally deemed a national public health emergency in October, with no clear addition of federal resources. States have varied in their responses, and Massachusetts, in particular, has been aggressive with new legislation and funding . The laws in Massachusetts allow for involuntary rehab for substance abusers if a family member petitions the court under the state’s decades-old section 35. The irony is that much of this “involuntary” treatment is voluntary : People will ask family members to apply for them as a way of getting into treatment and as a way of bypassing the cost. Section 35 admissions are funded by the state, not by the individual or by health insurance.
In the newer STEP (Substance Use, Treatment, Education, and Prevention) Act, signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2016, hospitals are required to offer a substance abuse evaluation and information about treatment to patients who are seen after a drug overdose. Patients, however, often refuse the evaluation, and the original legislation had a provision aimed at allowing health care professionals to involuntarily hold substance abusers for 72 hours without a court order. That provision did not pass, and similar legislation is being proposed again.
As a Boston Globe article (“Mass. governor aims to expand battle against opioid addiction,” Nov. 15, 2017) explains , “Two years ago, Baker stirred controversy with a proposal to hold addicted patients for 72 hours against their will in emergency departments. That idea was rejected by the Legislature. The new bill takes a different approach to the 72-hour hold, enabling doctors to transfer patients with addiction to a treatment facility, much as they would with a person deemed a danger because of mental illness.”
The issues with involuntary care are complicated and nuanced in psychiatric disorders, and perhaps even more so with substance abuse. The time frame of 72 hours for mental health conditions allows for assessment and sometimes for the start of treatment. In some states, a hearing must be held for continued involuntary detention; in other states, a decision must be made as to whether further inpatient care will be pursued, and the actual hearing takes place days to weeks later, depending on the state. For the purposes of allowing someone to clear from an opioid intoxication, then persuading them to engage in voluntary substance abuse treatment, it seems that 72 hours could be the exact wrong time period.
Ideally, a patient would be placed in a comfortable inpatient unit, begun on medication-assisted withdrawal, and offered a high quality of care for those 72 hours so that continuing with treatment might be a palatable option. But would that actually happen? Does Massachusetts have the means and facilities for all its overdose patients? Massachusetts has, in fact, been aggressive with funding. Since 2015, the state has added 1,100 new treatment beds. The efforts to fund and offer novel treatments are commendable. My concern remains that without adequate treatment or a positive experience – a difficult target in the best of circumstances for a patient who is 72 hours into opioid withdrawal – patients would leave only to resume their substance abuse. In a disastrous scenario, patients who have overdosed and fear being detained might not call for help, and the death rate could actually rise.
John A. Renner Jr., MD, is the past president of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and coeditor of Office-Based Buprenorphine Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder (American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2018). Dr. Renner, who is a professor at Boston University, said, “I would like to see some evidence and research to be sure there were not unintended harms before we go this route.”
Eric C. Strain, MD , director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and Research, Baltimore, noted: “Simply holding someone for 3 days, especially against their will, doesn’t make a lot of sense. They are certainly not going to be all better either from a physiological or psychological standpoint. It might, however, be possible to get a person who was not interested in treatment engaged in treatment, and that would be a success.”
Despite the increased numbers of beds and aggressive, thoughtful interventions, Massachusetts still had 1,450 overdose deaths in the first 9 months of 2017, a decrease of only 10% from the year before, according to the Globe article. For the sake of the former Little League players in Maryland, and all the other victims of this lethal nationwide epidemic, it is imperative that any untested treatments be the source of new research. If these measures are implemented, it is essential that Massachusetts follow the people who are the beneficiaries of interventions and create the data that allow other states to either follow suit if these efforts are successful, or allocate resources to other treatments if they are not.
Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatry Care (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).