June 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Levin: U.S. must make treatment for painkillers, heroin more available

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. (Susan Walsh / AP)

Washington — U.S. Sen. Carl Levin is urging the Obama administration and Congress to make it easier for addicts to wean themselves from heroin and opium-based painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin.

The Detroit Democrat is holding a forum in Washington, D.C., starting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on an issue they have championed for more than a decade — making it easier to get access to a drug called buprenorphine, available since 2000, that helps people addicted to painkillers or heroin.

Levin said many people in Michigan can’t find a doctor to prescribe the drug because of patient limits. Doctors face a 30-patient limit for one year before they can treat to up 100, a cap that Levin wants lifted.

A tiny fraction of family doctors are approved to prescribe buprenorphine, he said.

Michigan’s Medicaid health care program for low-income residents pays for a year of treatment — another problem, he says.

Levin said Michigan doctors report that thousands of people in the state who are addicted to painkillers and heroin are leading productive lives because of the anti-addiction drug, including executives at major Michigan corporations.

“Why do we have a cap when we don’t have a cap on treating diabetics?” Levin said in an interview this week in his Capitol Hill office. “Why are we only treating half of the people who want it and need it? Is it the cap, the cost? ... This saves lives.”

In a 2011 report, the White House said prescription drug abuse is the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem and called it an “epidemic.”

Buprenorphine, called “bupe“ by some, is in some ways similar to methadone, which has been used for decades as a substitute for the heroin craving of addicts. But it is much less potent than methadone, which is often sold illegally and abused.

While methadone is dispensed in carefully controlled clinics, a 2000 law allowed doctors, after receiving certification, to prescribe the drug buprenorphine at their offices. It is not addictive and patients can take the pills, once every few days, at home.

“When you go to a clinic, you’re announcing you’re an addict,” Levin said, adding some won’t go to the methadone clinics. “There’s a lot of people who are ashamed.”

The Wednesday forum will include Dr. John Kitzmiller, a physician and certified buprenorphine provider from Lake Orion, and other physicians, addiction experts and buprenorphine patients. The forum experts are expected to discuss how to expand access to the drug.

Levin said a big problem is the precertification required by insurance companies to approve treatment. He said there are countless “horror stories” about people being turned away who could be helped.

“It’s just bloody incredible that we have a substance which works effectively by everybody’s standards,” Levin said.