WKYT Investigates | Authorities say Suboxone could be Kentucky's next epidemic

A line outside of St. John Newman's Medical Plaza | Photo: Barton Bill

JACKSON, Ky. (WKYT) - Doctors say Suboxone, a treatment drug prescribed to help people with opiate addictions, is highly effective if used correctly. However, some law enforcement agencies in Kentucky think Suboxone is being abused at a rate that has not been seen since the Oxycontin pill mills of years past.

Suboxone, the brand name for buprenorphine, is a schedule 3 narcotic that is regulated and lawful to obtain with a prescription. Police and some medical professionals in Kentucky say some doctors are handing out far too many prescriptions. Those clinics have raised concerns for police and other officials who want to get a handle on what could quickly become an epidemic.

"We had the pill mills when Oxycontin was so popular. You'd have people coming from different states, different counties, get there an hour before the clinic opened, long lines, people selling out in the parking lots and that's what we're seeing with Suboxone," said Dan Smoot with High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, also known as HIDTA. "It's being abused."

There are rules in place to prevent abuse.

Doctors, according to federal regulation, can only have 100 Suboxone patients. And while it's prescriptions can be covered by Medicaid, many patients pay cash. Doctors say that a patient may pay anywhere from $200 to $500 a month for Suboxone treatment. The prescription can range from $200 to $400 a month, depending on the prescription.

"You can become a millionaire almost instantly. There's so much money in these pills," Smoot said.

A THORN IN OUR SIDE

The concern, Dr. Mark Jorrisch, with the Kentucky Society of Addiction Medicine, said, is that buprenorphine "is becoming the pill mills of a few years ago."

But he said it is not "as highly abusable as some of the other opiates that are out there."

"Yes, buprenorphine is an opiate. If you take it you will develop tolerance and if you stop you will go into withdrawal," he said.

Jorrisch added that the drug does a lot of people a lot of good, but it "just needs to be in the hands of people who can manage this disease well."

"Is it a red flag to you to see a line outside of a Suboxone clinic?" Combs asked.

Jorrisch says physicians should not have lines outside their office.

That's something that Jackson police have seen outside St. John Newman's Medical Plaza. Jackson Police Chief Ken Spicer told WKYT there have been multiple disturbances, including fights and one shooting, outside the plaza this year.

"It's just a thorn in our side. It's become a haven for activity that's not conducive to a good society for our community," said Spicer.

Spicer told WKYT his officers have been called to St. John Newman's Medical Plaza a couple of times a week for the past six months.

"It's not our job to be a security guard for the doctor's office," he said.

'THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND'

The doctor's office is owned by Dr. Pablo Merced, a family doctor, who has been practicing in Kentucky since 1986.

On most days, his office is a regular family practice. Two days a week, however, he prescribes Suboxone from his office.

Merced acknowledged that there are lines outside his clinic, but he said he has no control over the actions of the individuals outside.

"Well, the shooting doesn't have anything to do with Suboxone. They're have a domestic problem," Merced explained. "This is not the clinic. It's outside. We can't help it. We cannot control what people do."

When asked whether the line of 30 people outside his clinic was typical, Merced said it was a day when he was prescribing the treatment drug.

"We only do clinics two days a week," Merced told Combs.

For his part, Merced said he follows regulations like any physician's office should. His medical license is active and, according to the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, he's had no disciplinary action. Merced has not been charged with any crimes.

The only complaint is concern from neighbors and police about the activity that has occurred outside his clinic.

"They don't understand," Merced said. "They see them as drug addicts."

Judy Spencer, who says she has overdosed eight times, lines up weekly to get treatment under Merced's care.

"This is the only time I ever wanted it to help," she said, noting that Merced and Suboxone saved her.

"If it wasn't for this, I don't know what I'd do. I'd probably be dead," she said.

Merced says the drug is meant to help. When asked whether all of his patients were coming in doing it the right way.

"Hard to say. The only thing we can do is try to monitor them as close as we can," Merced said.



 

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