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Mental Health Care | Substance Abuse | Addiction | Mental Wellness | Opioid Safety

The United States is in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calculates that more than 350,000 deaths are attributed to opioid overdoses nationwide since 1999. The military is at the forefront of efforts to help curb those numbers through its expansion of medically assisted treatment, also known as MAT.

Vice Adm. Raquel C. Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency, reported to the House Armed Services Committee last month that the military’s rate of deadly opiate overdoses is a quarter of the national average, according to House transcripts. Dr. Fuad Issa, chief of the implementation section at the DHA Psychological Health Center of Excellence, said the availability of MAT has a lot to do with breaking the cycle of addiction.

In 2016, the Department of Defense expanded the availability of MAT as part of the TRICARE benefit, with the goal of increasing successful treatment and reducing the number of overdoses and deaths due to opiate abuse, said DHA clinical psychologist and senior policy analyst Dr. Krystyna Bienia.

“Drugs like methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine as a medically assisted treatment plan relieve withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings that make opiate addiction so hard to overcome,” she said. “Used correctly, and in conjunction with psychotherapy, support, and counseling, they can help users overcome the addiction to opioids.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration points out that the benefits of MAT include not only curbing withdrawal symptoms and preventing cravings, but also providing medical supervision. MAT works to normalize brain chemistry, block the euphoric effects of opioids (which include prescription drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone), and stabilize body functions without the negative effects of the abused drug. MAT has proven to be clinically effective and significantly reduces the need for inpatient detoxification. Bienia notes that MAT provides a comprehensive, individually tailored program of medication and behavioral therapy.

Yet some MAT medications have challenges of their own. Methadone, for example, doesn’t produce euphoria; rather, it tricks addicts into thinking they’re getting the opiate, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Methadone works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain. But according to Issa, methadone itself can be addictive.

That’s why Navy Capt. Edward Simmer, psychiatrist and chief clinical officer for TRICARE, believes it’s important to realize that the medication is only one component of the treatment plan. He suggests part of his patients’ treatment is going to 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, and including other community support.

“There’s a large social component to drug use,” Simmer said. “Relapses are often caused by being around others who use drugs, or stresses associated with drug use. Therefore, successful treatment requires eliminating these triggers to the greatest extent possible.”

Bienia explained that the duration of MAT depends on the patient. “After months or a year or more of treatment, the medication can be gradually reduced and eventually stopped … but in some cases [it] has to be taken for a lifetime,” she said.

Issa noted that in the past, opiate users had to get their medication at a special dosing site, but today, a prescription for drugs effective in alleviating opiate withdrawal symptoms, such as the combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, can be filled at a local pharmacy. The 2016 TRICARE Mental Health and Substance Use Final Rule allows TRICARE-authorized physicians to provide office-based opioid treatment.

Issa said he believes this may be making a difference, noting that in addition to TRICARE changes, DoD has been training medical providers on the risks of opioids. The number of DoD opioid prescriptions dropped by 56 percent between 2013 and 2017.

According to Bono’s testimony to the House committee, less than 1 percent of active-duty service members are abusing or addicted to opioids.

In 2017, the DHA Psychological Health Center of Excellence, along with the Medical Directorate - National Capital Region, trained 192 physicians to prescribe MAT, and more nurse practitioners are being added this year to expand the network and coverage of MAT providers, said Issa.

“Beating an addiction is a drastic change in someone’s life, but treatment works,” said Simmer. “People do overcome addiction when everyone works together. There is hope.”

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