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Addiction leaders react harshly to HHS secretary's medication comments

May 15, 2017
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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The longstanding debate over whether medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine constitutes recovery was reinvigorated last week when Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price told a West Virginia newspaper, “If we just simply substitute buprenorphine or methadone or some other opioid-type medication for the opioid addiction, then we haven't moved the dial much.”

Several addiction specialists reacted harshly to Price's comments, Politico reported. American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) legislative chair Corey Waller said Price, a surgeon, was “moving out of the world of scientific fact into the world of alternative facts.” Waller is a New Jersey physician.

A treatment field that once hailed the words of support from former national drug czar Barry McCaffrey about methadone's essential role in treatment as a landmark development was clearly worried last week that Price's comments could represent a step back in the fight against stigma. HHS spokesperson Alleigh Marre later clarified Price's position, emphasizing that the secretary and former congressman supports numerous treatment strategies.

“Rather than discard avenues to treatment or embrace a one-size-fits-all mantra, Dr. Price has argued that we should be open and supportive of additional ways to treat the individual battling opioid addiction,” Marre said.

In his comments to the West Virginia newspaper, Price had suggested he was encouraged by the emergence of the opioid antagonist Vivitrol, the injectable form of naltrexone.

Recently dismissed U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who made significant inroads for the field last year with his office's report on addiction, responded to Price's comments by citing a number of Murthy's recently posted Tweets, including, “Some see medication-assisted treatment as substituting one substance for another and promote abstinence-only. This is not backed by science.”