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Women in leadership coalesce, vow to combat barriers to opioid treatment

June 30, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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The latest in a legion of groups formed to add its voice to combating the opioid crisis hopes to leverage what one of its leaders calls “female-ness.” Female Opioid-addiction Research and Clinical Experts (FORCE) wants to live up to its acronym, both by reaching out to other women compassionately and also by prevailing against an epidemic of policies that hinder effective treatment.

“We will be very specific about bad laws and bad practices,” Behshad Sheldon, president and CEO of Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, tells Addiction Professional. “Advocacy is a substantial piece of it, but we will also hire lawyers.”

Sheldon, whose company this month won approval for the Probuphine implant version of the medication buprenorphine for opioid dependence, cites examples of stigmatizing policies such as Tennessee's law that has subjected pregnant women who use drugs to incarceration, and Kentucky's barring of healthcare professionals who are receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) from continuing to practice. Sheldon says a major component of FORCE's agenda will involve making sure that medication remains a crucial part of the conversation in the opioid-fighting effort—with preserving choice among the three approved medications critical.

“We only have three—it's so sad,” says Sheldon. “Why is this therapeutic area different? Look at how many antihypertensives we have.”

Origin of group

FORCE, which was formally announced at a Washington, D.C., press event on June 23, grew out of the notion that women, who make the vast majority of healthcare decisions, need more accurate information about opioid addiction and its treatment.

The thinking among organizers became, “If we're trying to reach women, we should try to reach them with other women,” says Sheldon, whose company is partially supporting FORCE financially.

FORCE's alliance members are 16 women leaders in addiction treatment, research, public policy and pharmaceuticals. They include Andrea Barthwell, MD, chief medical officer of The Manor and former deputy director at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP); Kelly Clark, MD, chief medical officer of the CleanSlate Centers chain of MAT clinics; and Sandra Comer, PhD, director of the Opioid Laboratory at Columbia University's Division on Substance Abuse and president of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

Sheldon says the group has been pointed about what it wants to accomplish, with much of its agenda intended to reduce stigma. An announcement of the group's formation states that FORCE will combat inadequate coverage of MAT, reliance on treatments that are not supported by evidence, and use of judgmental language about addiction and recovery, such as the term “staying clean.”

This month's press event also featured the group's presentation of awards for opioid addiction fighting-efforts to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Nora Volkow, MD, and Baltimore City Health Department commissioner Leana Wen, MD. FORCE also announced that it will be awarding two $25,000 grants to organizations promoting education and evidence-based treatment for opioid addiction.