Health

As the opioid epidemic continues and addiction experts push for more medication-assisted treatment, a controversial national nonprofit funded by drug companies is setting up shop in Kentucky.

The group, the Addiction Policy Forum, was formed three years ago and is funded by drug companies that make the medication-assisted treatment drugs used to help people stay off opioids. Last week, the group announced it’s forming a Kentucky chapter to help fight addiction in Kentucky.

“We know that there are millions of families that are struggling with addiction and a lot of times they don’t know where to turn for accurate and useful information,” said Mark O’Brien, APF’s vice president of state affairs.

The Addiction Policy Forum has set up a hotline and website for information on where to get treatment in Kentucky; the group has done so in 16 other states with plans to expand into every state by the end of the year, according to O’Brien.

But state officials and health experts say the group’s efforts are duplicating systems already in place — and may pose conflicts of interest.

Conflicts Of Interest

Glen Mays, a health policy professor at the University of Kentucky, thinks the timing of APF’s expansion efforts is noteworthy.

On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the “SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act,” a legislative package aimed at combating the opioid crisis. It would provide funds to states to expand access to medication-assisted treatment. The legislation would also increase funding to states for Medicaid providers offering addiction treatment and it would increase reimbursement rates. The measure will now move to the Senate.

“That’s clearly part of the reason why we’re seeing these initiatives, like the Addiction Policy Forum, and a reason to be cognizant about the potential conflicts of interest,” Mays said.

Alkermes, the maker of the medication-assisted treatment drug Vivitrol, is one of APF’s funders. As reported last year by NPR and Side Effects Public Media, a mental health advocate in Indiana helped write a bill to make medication-assisted treatment drugs other than Vivitrol harder to obtain. That same mental health advocate turned out to be a lobbyist for Alkermes, which legislators did not know.

Mays said that the best way to combat the epidemic is through a public health approach — where government, private industry and other partners come together.

“We want to design transparent policies that will allow the best therapy that will be matched to individual patients,” he said. “And if we want that to happen, we need broad-based collaboration in the design of these policies, so we don’t have hidden conflicts of interest and we’re not advantaging one particular treatment over another.”

Jennifer Stepp, Addiction Policy Forum’s Kentucky chair, said she understands the concerns about funding from pharmaceutical companies. But she said these companies are putting necessary money into the issue. She’s said she’s learned through operating her own addiction nonprofit in Bullitt County to not dismiss potential allies just because they have something to gain.

“Working with my own advocacy group, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve made enemies,” Stepp said. “When you think someone is your adversary and you treat them as your adversary, nothing gets resolved.”

Duplicated Efforts

Stepp said she has goals for working in Frankfort as part of the Kentucky chapter of APF. Those goals include moving the anti-overdose drug naloxone from prescription-only to over-the-counter, adding syringe disposal boxes in public restrooms, and requiring more treatment providers to accept insurance to help patients pay for suboxone and other treatment.

But Kentucky leaders say the state already has some of the resources the group is promising.

Kentucky already has a website and hotline for people seeking help with an addiction disorder. Findhelpnowky.org, which is run by the state and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, launched in February. The service is operated by the Kentucky Injury and Prevention Center at the University of Kentucky.

Center director Terry Bunn said they partner with 448 substance use disorder treatment facilities in the state. Bunn said APF did not reach out to them before setting up its Kentucky chapter and website.

Bunn said that it took a year to build FindHelpNowKy.org. Most of the listed treatment providers update the website daily with the number of available spots, which Bunn said makes it easier for people seeking help to find it faster. So far, Bunn said, the website has had 15,000 unique visitors.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.