Beny Primm, MD, a leader in the treatment of opioid addiction and AIDS, died October 16 at the age of 87 after a long battle with kidney disease. He left a legacy of care for patients in the earliest days of HIV/AIDS, before physicians even had a name for the symptoms they were seeing in these patients.
Dr. Primm was passionate about treating heroin addicts, many of whom were injecting drug users who contracted HIV from needle-sharing. An advocate for medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and deeply compassionate about a population many in the medical field dismissed, Dr. Primm established in 1969 the Addiction Research Treatment Corporation (ARTC), now called START Treatment & Recovery Centers, in New York City.
But even before then, Dr. Primm conquered many odds. He was born in Appalachia during the Great Depression, and later moved to New York City with his family, who wanted him to receive a good education. He won a basketball scholarship to Lincoln University, went on to West Virginia State University, and left the country to study medicine at the University of Heidelberg Medical School and the University of Geneva. At a time when it was difficult to get into medical school as a black in America, he achieved his dream of becoming a doctor.
Dr. Primm also was proud of being a veteran, having served for four years as a paratrooper and First Lieutenant in the elite 82nd Airborne Division—the primary fighting arm of the XVIII Airborne Corps, stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina
A Leader at SAMHSA
Back in New York, working at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Primm saw firsthand the health challenges in the black community, and chose to focus on the heroin epidemic and medication-assisted treatment.
He was the first director of the Office of Treatment Improvement, now the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Dr. Primm initiated SAMHSA’s Treatment Improvement Protocols (TIPs), a leading resource on the treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs).
“I came to know Dr. Primm in his final years of his tenure at ARTC, and I remember him as the most grandfatherly head of the company,” Ben Louie, PMP, chief of staff of START, told AT Forum. “He was always mild, never rough. Though I heard he was capable of losing his temper, in front of me and other junior staff, he was ever the positive gentleman. When he later stepped down from day-to-day operations, and then took the final step of retiring, his return visits always put a smile on my face.”
Dr. Primm was “sharper than a knife, but tempered by a wonderful humanity,” said Mr. Louie. “Looking back, I was amazed that from day one he knew my name, and continued to call out to me every time he saw me. That was the sort of man he was.”
Ronald Valdiserri, MD, MPH, director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, called Dr. Primm a leader in the national response to HIV. When the AIDS epidemic unfolded, Dr. Primm was one of the first to see the connection to opioid addiction, said Dr. Valdiserri. He noted that Dr. Primm advised many presidents, including President Reagan, who was in office during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Grit and Determination
But the words that really strike home come from H. Westley Clark, MD, JD, until last year director of CSAT. “I have known Dr. Primm for many years,” Dr. Clark told AT Forum. “He was a leader, a thinker, and a mentor. He advocated for those without a voice. He encouraged a wide range of individuals to take seriously the issues of substance use disorder, HIV/Hep C, and the general health needs of patients.”
It was Dr. Primm who advised Dr. Clark to apply for the CSAT director job. “And, when I wasn’t selected the first time, he encouraged me to apply again when the position was vacated,” said Dr. Clark.
“Furthermore, he insisted that African American clinicians be included in the larger discussion about the treatment and research needs of communities of color,” Dr. Clark added. “His stamina did not begin to wane until his kidneys started to fail. Yet, even while on dialysis, he moved deliberately across the country, participating when and where he could to keep the message up—that medication-assisted treatment for opioid-dependent individuals—that whole health care for safety net populations—that heterosexual and LGBT populations at risk of HIV—needed both prevention and access to SUD treatment. His story was one of grit and determination. It is and was a remarkable story.”