Before the coronavirus crisis, another crisis lurked, the overdose crisis. Now the overdose crisis is wrapped inside the COVID-19 crisis. What has that meant for sufferers of substance use disorders? The results have been a decrease in access to in-person recovery and therapy sessions as they transitioned to online, either telemedicine or Zoom meetings. Access to the gold standard of treatment for substance use disorders, medication assisted treatment, has also been curtailed because of the coronavirus. For some, not being with a supportive group or not having easy access to online technology, raised anxiety levels, increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. These combinations of factors have led to an increase in the rate of overdose, estimated in 2020 to be 20% higher than in 2019.
At the New Jersey Resource Project, we believe all people deserve dignity and respect, and to live a happy and fulfilled life- regardless of if they are using drugs/struggling with addiction or not. And, to that end, we are focused on increasing access to medication assisted treatment that saves lives. Brendan’s story highlights this need.
“My name is Brendan Coughenour, I am thirty years old, and I am born and raised in Westwood, Bergen County New Jersey. I began using opioids in high school in the same way as hundreds of thousands of other opioid users, through a prescription to OxyContin.
My family was by no means wealthy, although my father worked hard and we were blessed with everything we needed and a lot of love. However, after a series of wrestling injuries, a doctor who was certainly not acting in good faith prescribed me OxyContin and Dilaudid for “breakthrough pain”. In a lot of cases this is a valid combination of drugs for people with chronic pain, however they have no business in the hands of an athletic 18 year old wrestler suffering from a very minor knee injury. In essence, we were duped not only by a doctor looking for cash money, but also by a corporation, Purdue Pharma, looking for a huge bottom line. I was hooked. Eventually, the same doctor discovered she could also bank huge profits by obtaining a suboxone waiver and she charged my poor parents almost 200 dollars a week for treatment for drug addiction she originally caused. She knew the score and went for it. My parents were desperate and knew no better, and have been a blessing to me since day one, been on my side and would do anything to see me safe and healthy, including meeting any financial needs.
Eventually, after many years of loss and pain, fentanyl found its way into the American drug supply. In 2016 my parents met with another painful burden, the necessity and use of Narcan. Luckily my parents were aware of my disappearing into the bathroom for a prolonged period and were able to find me in time when I overdosed in their home. They forced open the door, administered injectable Narcan into my thigh, began CPR and called 911. If it wasn’t for their awareness and concern, and for their ability to easily access the life-saving dose of Narcan, I would not be here today.
I have found my own personal way to recovery, which is MAT, medication assisted treatment. My medication of choice is methadone, but many many other opioid users and their families depend on suboxone. Unfortunately, many doctors use the obtaining of the special suboxone license to obtain huge profit margins. Even if insurance carries the cost of the visit and medication, the doctor will charge the patient 100-200 dollars for the “Urine screen” upon each visit. This is basically just for profit, and the burden falls back on already harried and damaged families to foot the bill. This needs to change. We need to make sure any and every one can get the MAT they need and deserve without suffering financially. If people can get the actual prescription opioid drugs without any sort of specially obtained waiver, why are we requiring doctors to have a waiver to provide the treatment for these opioids? The waiver system creates a system of exclusion and scarcity; and the system is being abused for profit and in many other harmful ways. We need to be able to provide treatment without factoring in profits for pharma and providers first, instead we need to put recovery first.
Without another lifesaving compound, Narcan, we would be fighting the war on Overdose Deaths with our hands tied behind our back. Narcan should be as prevalent as the AEDs required to be hanging on the walls of businesses. There are drug users overdosing behind closed doors and in public spaces all across this country, and we need to stop the deaths. Just like the battle for cheaper and more accessible Epipens for allergy sufferers, the stigma around Overdose Reversal should be lifted completely and Narcan should be included in every first aid kit and in every business. If Narcan didn’t exist and I didn’t have people around me that were able and willing to use it, I would not be fighting this battle with you today. But this is the reason why I fight, and why you should too. Every Drug user has value to society and their family, and every loss is a totally preventable tragedy. The answers are not only known but within easy reach, we just need to be dedicated to implementing them.”