A sign made by a family member to commemorate a Pittsburgh overdose victim at a 2017 event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day at the City-County Building. Photo by Maranie Staab.

In the fight against opioid addiction, there is some good news. Early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the rate of overdose deaths nationwide leveled off in the first half of 2018, after reaching historic highs in 2017.

Dr. James Schuster, the chief medical officer for Behavioral and Medicaid Services for the UPMC Insurance Services Division, credits this drop partially to healthcare providers embracing opioid replacement medications like buprenorphine, which is often sold under the brand name Suboxone.

The only challenge is this: While studies suggest buprenorphine is a safer, less addictive alternative to replacement therapies like methadone, it comes with its own risks for abuse and therefore requires a special waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration to dispense.

So UPMC has spent the last several weeks holding a series of free, eight-hour training sessions to help in-network healthcare providers to prescribe buprenorphine, and also connect them with the wide variety of treatment options available in the UPMC medical ecosystem.

“Pennsylvania has a shortage of qualified providers and we are offering training options to help providers meet the requirements for a DEA waiver,” says Dr. Schuster. “More providers are necessary to adequately reach all members with opioid use disorders.”

The drug, which helps patients manage withdrawal symptoms, is seen by many medical professionals as a critical step in moving patients from dependency to long-term recovery options. At the trainings, the assembled healthcare professionals are encouraged not only to write prescriptions but to connect patients and their families with social and mental health services in their communities.

“There is a strong psycho/social component,” says Dr. Schuster. “It’s a lot more than just that getting them the drugs.”

The most recent training took place on Dec. 8 at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland. Previous training events took place in Erie and Williamsport in November.

Dr. Michael Turturro, Chief of Emergency Services for UPMC Mercy, said the Saturday training was particularly focused on getting emergency room specialists educated on the latest treatment options, as emergency situations are often the only way opioid-dependent patients interact with their local healthcare system.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Dr. Schuster said unprompted that in the last decade, “indiscriminate prescribing” of powerful opioid pain relievers from healthcare providers has played a significant role in worsening the epidemic.

Along with encouraging the use of replacement drugs Schuster says that the overall prescribing of opioids in UPMC Health Plan system is down about 30 percent in the last three years. It helps that sites like https://www.sacredkratom.com/buy-kratom/ have been making it easier for people in need to see alternative medicines first hand. It is expected to keep trending this way.

While an exact date has not been set, UPMC is looking to hold another training in early 2019 in Altoona.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.