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Jim Kenyon: Methadone rules make the pandemic even harder for people with addiction

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/4/2020 10:02:53 PM
Modified: 4/4/2020 10:02:51 PM

If it were up to her, Aimee Olson would pretty much be sticking to the stay-at-home order that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu issued 10 days ago.

But she needs her methadone.

And there’s only one way for Olson to get the prescription medication that reduces her cravings for other drugs and helps her avoid the excruciating pains associated with withdrawal, known as “dope sickness.”

Three times a week or so, the 44-year-old Olson leaves her apartment in downtown Hanover to stand in line at the Habit Opco medication-assisted treatment center on Route 12A in West Lebanon. (The private clinic is part of Acadia Healthcare, a Tennessee-based company that operates treatment centers across the country.)

How long Olson’s at the clinic depends largely on how many other people with addictions show up around the same time. The clinic, which treats nearly 400 patients a day on a first-come, first-served basis, dispenses medications from 5:30 to 10:30 a.m., according to a sign taped to its front door.

With the coronavirus pandemic growing by the day, Olson approaches each trip with more dread. People with serious underlying medical conditions “might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Along with battling an addiction to prescription painkillers, Olson suffers from chronic liver disease and other health problems.

The 1993 Windsor High School graduate told me that she was first prescribed painkillers for severe menstrual cramps as a teenager. Later, doctors gave her oxycodone to control pain following multiple abdominal surgeries and dental problems.

“The stuff was handed out like candy,” she said. “They didn’t tell you that you might become addicted to it.”

On Thursday morning, I met Olson — at a distance — outside the Dirt Cowboy Cafe on South Main Street in Hanover. The apartment she shares with her boyfriend, who is the building’s superintendent, is above the coffee shop.

Olson, who worked as a waitress, cook and bartender before her illness took over, walked with a cane. A case holding a small tank of oxygen was slung around her shoulder. The tank connects to plastic tubing that feeds oxygen into Olson’s nostrils to help combat a pulmonary disorder.

On March 16, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration relaxed rules so more people recovering from opioid addiction could take methadone and other treatment drugs at home instead of having to go to clinics during the pandemic.

Under the new rules, patients can receive either a two-week or four-week supply of take-home doses. Olson told me that she’s asked Habit Opco to be placed on extended “take-home” status, but “they won’t give me an answer.”

Here’s the problem:

Olson, who has been taking methadone for nearly seven years, tested positive for alcohol during a urine screening at Habit Opco in early January. She admitted to having a couple of drinks on New Year’s Eve.

No doubt she was in the wrong. Mixing methadone and alcohol can lead to an overdose.

After the drinking incident, Habit Opco required Olson to take a breathalyzer on each visit for a couple of months. “I’ve never had a positive,” she told me.

The two months of testing for alcohol was prudent on Habit Opco’s part. But hasn’t Olson been punished enough?

With all her health problems, she shouldn’t be put at added risk of contracting the virus. The clinic already gives her one extra dose to take at home between visits so she doesn’t have to come in daily.

But getting the 5 miles to the clinic isn’t easy. Olson doesn’t drive. When her boyfriend is working or a friend isn’t available, she rides a free van with several other patients.

“You’d think they’d want high-risk people to stay at home,” she said, “but I don’t get a choice.”

I tried to interview Adrienne Sass, Habit Opco’s clinic director, about placing patients on 14- or 28-day take-home programs. In an email, Sass politely responded that she didn’t have time to talk.

The clinic’s “main focus at this time is keeping patients and staff safe while continuing to provide care,” she wrote.

That’s not an easy task. In a March 21 Facebook post, Sass said her clinic and sister clinics suffered from a shortage of face masks. “If you have happen to have some time on your hands and a sewing machine, I am collecting handmade face masks for my medical staff and patients who are at risk or ill,” she wrote.

Early Friday morning, I pulled into the parking lot of the 12A strip mall that’s been home to Habit Opco for a while. Nine people were lined up close together under the strip’s overhang — shelter from the light rain that was falling, but not conducive to social distancing.

Some people wore face masks, others didn’t. A security guard, who had a mask, peered through the clinic’s front window, checking to see if there was room for more people inside before he opened the door.

Olson told me that when she and other people with addictions are standing outside in line, they sometimes hear shouting from passing cars.

“They call us junkies,” she said.

One more reason for Olson to be taking her methadone at home.

On Wednesday, I wrote about Mary Maxfield, who is now symptom-free after being diagnosed with coronavirus in mid-March. I wrote that Maxfield had been tested for the virus by a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, but that was incorrect.

Maxfield’s test was administered by her internist at Hanover Continuity Clinic, a private practice in Hanover not affiliated with DHMC.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon @vnews.com.




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