Health Secretary: Suboxone, Methadone 'Just Trading One Opioid for Another'

By Paul Gaita 05/17/17

While speaking in West Virginia recently, Health Secretary Tom Price expressed more support for faith-based programs than addiction meds.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price Photo via Wikimedia/Mark Taylor

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price contradicted policies within his own agency when he pronounced medical treatment for opioid addiction as "just trading one opioid for another."

Price, who made the comments as part of a listening tour about the opioid epidemic in West Virginia—the state with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country—said that medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs that use opioids like Suboxone and methadone were "not moving the dial forward."

He instead advocated for faith-based solutions centered around abstinence. "Folks need to be cured so they can be productive members of society and realize their dreams," said Price. His statements run contrary to literature published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of HHS, which described medication-based treatment as "safe" and "controlled."

Price, who received a medical degree from the University of Michigan and served as an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, Georgia before joining the state's House of Representatives in 2004, acknowledged that the opioid problem in West Virginia—and in the country as a whole—had reached levels beyond control. "We’re losing people every single day across the nation, so we don't have time to wait," he said.

He reiterated President Donald Trump's commitment to fighting opioid addiction, and pointed to the commission headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as evidence. "This will not be solved in Washington, D.C.," said Kellyanne Conway, special counsel to Trump. "This is a nonpartisan issue with a bipartisan solution. We recognize at the White House that no state has been spared and no demographic has been untouched in what has become a full-on, nationwide epidemic."

But when asked for specific solutions, Price was dismissive of MAT programs, and voiced his support for faith-based approaches that favor complete abstinence. Price's advocacy of such programs stands not only in opposition to studies which have shown the efficacy of the MAT approach—reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2008 and 2011 found that 50% of participants who used Suboxone were successful in reducing their opioid use— but also the stance favored by SAMHSA, a division under his supervision.

Literature from SAMHSA addresses the issue in point-blank terms: "Taking medication for opioid addiction is like taking medication to control heart disease or diabetes. It is NOT the same as substituting one addictive drug for another. Used properly, the medication does NOT create a new addiction. It helps people manage their addiction so that the benefits of recovery can be maintained."

Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who was removed from his post in April by the Trump administration, responded to Price's comments by stating, "If recent comments from the Administration indicate a shift away from an evidence-based, public health approach to the opioid crisis, I am concerned the negative impact on the health of Americans will be considerable. It is important that people know the truth about what science says about opioid addiction treatment: medication-assisted treatment works."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.