The first time Jessica Harden and Richard Martin saw a doctor in Frederick, it was through a slightly grainy TV screen on the ground floor of Wells House @ Gale Recovery, a residential drug treatment program.
The two patients — who abused heroin for years while living in Baltimore — are working toward recovery with the help of Suboxone, a prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction. But instead of in-person appointments with a doctor, the two rely on a telemedicine program between the Frederick facility and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore — a resource that allows them to video conference with qualified addiction specialists.
The program — the first in the state — is a way to alleviate the shortage of providers in Frederick County who can prescribe addiction-treatment drugs, said Paul Smith, a telemed coordinator.
While a handful of doctors in the area can prescribe Suboxone and similar medications, most don’t accept state Medicaid, leaving many patients stranded on two- to eight-week waiting lists for a preliminary appointment.
“We’ve seen some wait lists as long as three months,” Smith added. “It really puts patients in a tight spot.”
Key to recovery
For Harden and Martin, access to Suboxone has been key to their efforts to stay clean. One of the most difficult parts of recovery, they said, is making it through heroin withdrawal — a physically and emotionally taxing process that often leads to relapse.
On Suboxone, though, patients’ cravings for heroin are substantially diminished, thanks to the medication’s ability to mimic the effect of opioid drugs without the accompanying euphoria. The drug also partially blocks opioid receptors, making it impossible for patients to abuse opioid-based narcotics.
“I still get thoughts here and there, but right now I have no desire to get high whatsoever,” Martin said.
“I used to get a lot of cravings, especially when I was first coming off heroin,” Harden added. “Every patient is different, but I haven’t personally had any cravings since I started taking it.”
Both patients meet with their doctors — Dr. Eric Weintraub and Dr. Chris Welsh with the University of Maryland Medical Center — for regular 15-minute video conference appointments. Dr. Joy Chang, another U-Md. specialist, recently joined the program as a third provider, added Sarah Gregory, another telemed coordinator.
Gregory also plans to expand the services available through the Frederick Telemed program. At the Wells House in Hagerstown, patients can be prescribed Vivitrol shots, an injectable addiction treatment medication that lasts a full month. The treatment hasn’t been available at the Frederick location, but Gregory hopes to bring in a nurse who can administer the shots.
“We’ve had a patient express interest, so that’s something we’d like to do,” she said.
The Wells House in Frederick is also adding 25 new beds, said Nathaniel Peacock, the IT director for the treatment center. Staff expect the added capacity to increase the number of patients who use the telemed program, which now sits at 10. Overall, the program has helped more than 250 patients at both locations, said Charlie Mooneyhan, executive director of Wells House.
Expanding the program, though, would also mean added expenditures for the treatment center. Medicaid covers a small portion of the hourly fees charged by all three telemed providers, but Wells House covers the majority of the treatment costs, Smith said.
Expanding the scope of services, though, is crucial for a community agency working to quell the effects of the current opioid epidemic.
“Our intake process is quick, but our waiting list never really diminishes,” Peacock added. “That’s why we want to grow in as many ways as possible.”