The Joint Commission Issues Revised Standards for Opioid Treatment Programs

Joint CommissionWorking closely with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), The Joint Commission has revised several standards for Opioid Treatment Program (OTP) accreditation. For The Joint Commission to be allowed to accredit OTPs, accreditation standards must be in alignment with SAMHSA’s regulations and guidelines. The Joint Commission, to keep up with SAMSHA regulations and guidelines, has added some new elements of performance and some new notes.

The new revisions to standards for OTPs, which took effect March 23, cover a range of issues, including administrative discharges, neonatal abstinence syndrome, parenting support groups, child care services, and prenatal care. The first topic covered is pain—a key issue for OTPs and for patients with opioid dependence.

“Some OTP patients may have co-occurring pain that existed with their opioid addiction prior to entering treatment, and some are in treatment and in recovery from addiction, but have pain,” said  Megan Marx, associate director at The Joint Commission, in an interview with AT Forum.

The Joint Commission’s biggest concerns are 1) that patients with pain be treated for their pain, and 2) that patients’ methadone or buprenorphine dose not be lowered as a result of their being put on pain medication. “This is language that came from SAMHSA,” said Ms. Marx. “We’re saying that if you have a patient, you need to adequately treat their opioid addiction, and not change the dose just because that patient is now accessing pain treatment. You need to confer and make sure that your patient is treated adequately.”

Asked whether the OTP should treat pain in its patients, Ms. Marx responded, “That’s not for us to say.” If the best way to meet the patient’s needs is to have the pain treated by another provider in the community, that is what should happen, she said.

It is clear that The Joint Commission is not telling OTPs they need to be able to treat pain—quite the opposite. They can, but they don’t have to. “I don’t know that all OTPs are in a position where they can treat pain,” she said.

What led The Joint Commission to the pain standard was SAMHSA, which, as the agency that regulates OTPs, has great interest in the standards promulgated by The Joint Commission—and vice versa. Since 2001, SAMHSA has required OTPs to be certified by a “deemed” accrediting body—and The Joint Commission has such deeming authority. A review of The Joint Commission’s most recent renewal application for deemed status, submitted to SAMHSA two years ago, prompted the clarification and revisions to The Joint Commissions standards.

The discussion about pain has taken time, said Ms. Marx. “But it is SAMHSA that wants to make sure that all patients are assessed for pain. Where there may be challenges in treating people who have pain issues, OTPs need to be aware of their limitations.”

And there may be an oblique indication that non-opioid pain relief is something both SAMHSA and The Joint Commission want to see offered. “When we talk about treating pain, there is treating pain with medication, but also a variety of other ways,” said Ms. Marx. “We don’t want to leave those people out of the loop either.” For example, there are pain management specialists who may use physical therapy, acupuncture, and other methods.

OTPs are good at recognizing drug-seeking and the pain of withdrawal, she said. “But so much more comes with the patient who has pain,” she said. People can have pain in addition to drug addiction, she added, citing the need to evaluate short-term pain related to an injury, and chronic pain related to disease.

Case-By-Case Administrative Discharges

The Joint Commission makes it clear that OTPs cannot institute across-the-board rules for “administrative discharges.”  Some OTPs discharge patients because they can’t pay, or more often because they have tested positive for other drugs, like benzodiazepines. “It has to be on a case-by-case basis,” said Ms. Marx. And The Joint Commission checks documentation to make sure that, indeed, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. There can be no policy that says a certain number of positive tests for benzodiazepines, for example, results in an automatic discharge.

“Ongoing multi drug use is not necessarily a reason for discharge. We all know that when people come into treatment, many are not using just heroin,” she said.

There was a reason for patients to use drugs, and that’s why they’re in treatment, Ms. Marx pointed out. “They didn’t get the way they are overnight, and they’re not going to change overnight. We don’t want patients to be taken out of programs simply because they have issues reducing their use of other substances.”

Benzodiazepine abuse is very worrying to OTPs, because of the risk—like opioids, benzodiazepine is a central nervous system depressant, and combining it with methadone could result in overdose, even death. But the way to approach benzodiazepine use is not to terminate treatment, “it’s to work with your team and your patient to come up with the best plan,” she said.

In addition, a patient who is dependent on benzodiazepines and is threatened with administrative discharge could try to stop using the benzodiazepines on their own. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is life-threatening and is typically managed in an inpatient setting, she said.

The field is now able to use harm-reduction terminology, which is helpful in accreditation of OTPs. For example, if patients are no longer using opioids, even if they are misusing benzodiazepines, harm is being reduced. “You have to use common sense and ask whether it is safer for the patient to be in treatment, because at least they’re successful with the opioid addiction,” said Ms. Marx. She added that by staying in treatment, eventually the patient can be helped to stop using other substances as well.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

If there is a risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—such as when a pregnant patient is taking methadone or buprenorphine—The Joint Commission now requires the OTP to help obtain comprehensive care for the baby. “This goes back to the issue of making sure that everyone has access to the best care,” Ms. Marx said. “Because OTPs deal with this on a more regular basis, they have information to share with patients about where this care can be provided. If it’s not something that the obstetrician knows about, then the OTP should be able to provide patients with the information.”

It’s helpful for the OTP to let the obstetrician know how the mother has been doing in the OTP during pregnancy, she said.

Parenting Support Groups

OTPs should also be able to provide referrals for parenting support groups—something that isn’t new, but that SAMHSA has “gotten more specific about,” said Ms. Marx. “There used to be one sentence about it in the old guidelines, and programs were confused about whether they had to offer these support groups.” While parenting support is important, especially when children have special needs, there’s no funding for it, she pointed out. She added that programs should at least be able to offer referrals, even if they don’t have to offer the actual groups.

She stressed that OTPs are not required to report parenting support problems to social services. But programs may realize, through their work with patients, that some families and children have specific needs and require prevention services. “If OTPs are aware of the fact that there are some behavioral health needs, as a responsible care provider, they need to see that there is a referral,” she said.

Child Care Services

This revised standard makes it clear that a program must either offer or provide referrals to child care services. “There was a lot of confusion about this,” said Ms. Marx. “In more remote locations, there are few services available for anything—it’s a geographic problem. This revision makes it clear that if you can’t provide a referral, you don’t have to have a day care center in the OTP.”

Prenatal Care

While some OTPs have the clinical expertise to care for pregnant patients, some do not. This standard provides for reciprocity in exchange of clinical information with the obstetrician providing care. In addition, if the patient refuses prenatal care, OTPs are now required to have the patient acknowledge in writing that she was offered the services, but refused them.

Treating pregnant patients who are not getting prenatal care is a liability issue for OTPs, which is why it’s important for them to get the signed documentation of refusal, she said. Why would a patient refuse prenatal services? Ms. Marx said for some women in treatment who plan on remaining pregnant there may be affordability or transportation issues.

“We do care about OTPs’ liability, because we want them to stay open,” she said. “We don’t want them to close, unless they’re really providing substandard care. There’s a shortage of treatment in the country. We need more treatment, not less.”

The revised standards are available at: http://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/18/Opioid_BHC.pdf

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