New Harm Reduction Focus Helps Bring Light

By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch — published by the Community Access National Network (CANN) — recently added two new sections to its monthly report: the first focuses on the coverage offered by the Veterans Administration (VA); the second, and perhaps more involved research, focuses on Harm Reduction efforts.

HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch

HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch

The VA section is extremely cut and dry; they recently announced that they will effectively cover all veterans who are currently eligible for benefits for HCV treatment using Direct Acting Agent (DAA) HCV therapies. The Harm Reduction section, however, requires a more nuanced approach, as each state has its own interpretation of how they implement each aspect of Harm Reduction.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Harm Reduction” is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use, as well as for expanding, protecting, and respecting the rights of drug users. The specifics, again, vary from state to state in their implementation, but there are overarching ideals that are used to shape these programs. In our research, we’re focusing on several very important Harm Reduction strategies:

  • Syringe Exchanges;
  • Expanded Naloxone Access;
  • Good Samaritan Laws;
  • Mandatory Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs;
  • Doctor Shopping Laws;
  • Physical Examination Requirements;
  • ID Requirements for Purchase;
  • Required/Recommended Prescriber Education; and
  • Lock-In Programs.

If this list seems exhaustive, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Harm Reduction strategies have a consistent track record of bringing about positive health outcomes, but little attention gets paid to them, unless there is a well-publicized health crisis – a sudden explosion of new HIV infections resulting from injection drug use, for example – that essentially forces the hand of state legislators to act. The most recent example of legislative Harm Reduction publicity came from Maine, which we covered two weeks ago, when Republican Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill that provided expanded access to Naloxone by allowing it to be purchased from pharmacies without a prescription; his veto was quickly overturned by both Maine’s House and Senate on April 29th.

While Harm Reduction strategies have a proven record of net positive outcomes, there are always unintended consequences to any well-intentioned law. The U.S. has been in the throes of a prescription opioid addiction problem since the late 1990s, and state and federal governmental intervention is desperately needed and vitally important to help quell the ever-increasing addiction and overdose rates, HIV and HCV infection rates, and the unfortunate increase in criminal activities (such as varies classifications of theft) that tend to accompany an increase in opioid drug use. One such unintended consequence is the reduced access to prescription opioid drugs for patients whose healthcare needs truly necessitate their occasional use of a validly prescribed opioid.

I was recently asked by a very good friend if I knew of any doctors who would prescribe opioid pain relievers. This person knows the type of research I conduct, and his question stemmed from the fact that his doctor has repeatedly tried the same methods of pain relief that provide only short-term results to a chronic issue despite repeated requests to move past the less effective approach to a longer-lasting solution. My friend’s predicament is that any doctors outside of West Virginia University’s healthcare system are outside of his insurance plan’s network, which leaves him with few good options on a fixed income.

While I understand my friend’s predicament, I was unable to provide him with the answer he was seeking. What makes this problem difficult to address is that WV has one of the most vigorous legislative approaches to Harm Reduction strategies, largely because the state has been coping with a massive opioid addiction problem for at least two decades that has all but ravaged the state. It is my belief that this doctor properly using the context of WV’s opioid addiction problem to inform his overall approach to pain relief, and rightly so. For my friend, I suggested the use of a healthcare mediator or advocate during their next appointment; someone to speak on his behalf, and to try to come to a pain management approach that will allow him to better address his needs and to help the doctor understand his patient’s position – that the regimen he’s prescribing may not be the best solution for his patient.

My position, however, remains unchanged – Harm Reduction strategies are the most effective way to achieve net positive healthcare outcomes related to prescription opioid use, abuse, and addiction. While there will always be unintended consequences for some, the good of the many outweighs the complications that can arise from more stringent prescribing requirements. There is little doubt that we are facing a crisis of unprecedented scale; how we choose to deal with that, as a nation, will be of the utmost importance.

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Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.

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