Addiction is a Disease. There are treatments that work | Columns

When my mother was in her early 40s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still remember the exact moment she shared the news with us.

She chose to have a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation – treatments which her doctors told her would give her the best chance of survival. We were very fortunate that she had access to the best treatments available, based on rigorous science, of which her doctors were well informed. Thankfully, access to and options for treatment were not obstacles for our family.

Fast forward 35 years, and now I am a doctor, a doctor specializing in the treatment of addiction. We have treatments that can literally give patients their lives back – medicines and treatments based on rigorous science. Unfortunately, West Virginia state policy currently limits treatment options by capping the number of opioid treatment programs that can dispense methadone. So, not everyone has access and choices.

It doesn’t make sense. The medical community has over 50 years of experience successfully treating patients with opioid addictions with methadone. The impact is clear – treatment saves lives, reduces crime and allows people to work and function in society. It has been shown to be effective since the 1960s and was approved for use in 1972. Since then, it has been studied, tested and proven over five decades. Just this week, the Pew Charitable Trust released a report making this very point.

One of the biggest hurdles for patients is that people mistakenly believe that treating people with methadone or buprenorphine is “just exchanging one drug for another” that we’re not actually treating their addiction. Doctors who understand science-based facts on addiction and recovery understand this is a drug treatment that positively affects opioid addiction and saves lives. These treatments help the patient, their families, and our communities. So, why are we limiting treatments that work?

Let me ask you, would we ever accept a limited treatment approach with cancer, heart disease or diabetes? Withhold life-saving care for these diseases? If my mother’s oncologist limited her treatment options, there’s a good chance she wouldn’t be alive today.

What if your family member had a heart attack? Do we refuse to prescribe medications proven to help them live longer out of fear that we would enable them to eat unhealthy foods? Obviously not. Yes, this is exactly how patients who seek help for their addiction are so often overlooked. There’s a huge stigma standing in the way of treatment. And access to that treatment.

Our state has led the nation in opioid overdose rates per capita for many years. Between April 2020 and April 2021, over 1,600 West Virginians died from overdosing on opioids – an average of about five people a day. During the pandemic, the national overdose rate increased by 30 percent. But it increased by 62 percent from the previous year in our state. I know we are tired of hearing it, but things are getting worse, not better. And the medical community here has treatments that work.

The best treatments in the world will not work if patients cannot get to them. We have only nine methadone treatment centers to choose from here. New patients need to visit those centers every day because that’s how it works.

We currently have a state law that limits us to nine methadone treatment programs for the entire state. A bill has recently been submitted to change this law, which would pave the way for increased access to addictions treatment. I hope our leaders understand that limiting access to treatment programs, whether for heart disease, diabetes, or addiction, is a huge disservice to people who need them. I hope we can spread awareness and compassion around addiction. We need more education, access, and understanding. And accessible treatment programs throughout our great state.

— Dr. Michael Reynolds is an Addiction Medicine Fellow at WVU, caring for patients with substance use disorders. Before that, he worked as a family medicine physician and emergency medicine physician.

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