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Solution to opioid addiction epidemic is medication-assisted treatment

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There has been a lot of talk about opioid addiction in business and government circles, and the discussion is getting personal, too.

If you’re like most people in Arizona and throughout the nation, you probably know someone whose life has been impacted by substance abuse. Perhaps a relative is addicted to heroin, a friend is dependent on alcohol, or a co-worker is hooked on painkillers.

Addiction isn’t picky. It’s a national epidemic and Arizona has been hit especially hard. All told, 790 Arizonans died of opioid overdoses — 482 from prescriptions and 308 from heroin — in 2016 alone, according to the state Department of Health Services. That’s an astounding 74 percent jump in overdose deaths from 2012.

In June, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a statewide health emergency due to opioid overdose deaths, calling for more education, better data and targeted solutions. Ducey and other policymakers are to be commended for confronting this epidemic head-on.

Saul Parea

Saul Perea

Other individuals and organizations are looking for ways to address the problem, too. At Terros Health, we are responding to the call with a Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program that I believe will save lives, families and dollars.

MAT is the use of FDA-approved medications, in combination with individual, group and family counseling and therapy, to treat patients with substance-abuse disorders. Together, they have been found to be effective in treating an addiction to opioids, alcohol, nicotine and other drugs.

A 2016 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts concluded MAT is the most effective intervention to treat opioid-use disorder, more useful than behavioral interventions or medication alone. The treatment can significantly reduce illicit opioid use, compared to non-drug approaches. Further, it has been demonstrated that increased access to these combined therapies can reduce overdose fatalities.

At Terros Health, a new patient undergoes thorough physical- and mental-health examinations before being prescribed one of two medications. Buprenorphine reduces or eliminates withdrawal symptoms, including drug cravings, without producing the euphoria or dangerous side effects of heroin and other opioids. Naltrexone blocks the brain’s opioid receptors and can rapidly reverse or block the effects of other opioids. The medications are ordered daily from pharmacies, and none are kept at any of Terros Health’s sites. Patients are closely monitored for side effects and randomly drug tested.

Equally important are the intensive individual and group therapies required of MAT patients to help them realize their ability to change their lives by developing essential coping skills and behavior changes, as well as a network of support that is key to recovery.

Addiction is a complex illness, with biological and psychological components. Medication pacifies the addicted brain’s receptors that produce cravings and rewards, while psychosocial rehabilitation helps the wounded, traumatized individual manage his or her depression and illness. Together, they produce the best outcome.

— Dr. Saul Perea is the integrated care medical director of Terros Health, a nonprofit, integrated health care organization in Arizona that specializes in mental health and addiction care for adults, adolescents, children and families, while also providing physical health care services to achieve whole health and wellness for their patients.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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