LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For some in recovery from opioid addiction, taking methadone is a daily requirement. Missing a dose of the strictly regulated treatment could result in painful withdrawal symptoms. New York City has now launched a delivery program, though, so patients can get methadone without leaving their homes during this pandemic, as Olivia Reingold reports.
OLIVIA REINGOLD, BYLINE: It's a sunny day in Brooklyn, and Ana Pagan is outside, waiting for a visit from the New York City Health Department. She says a few minutes ago, she had to run back upstairs because she realized she'd forgotten her mask.
ANA PAGAN: And that alone takes my breath away.
REINGOLD: She's 57 and has asthma and pulmonary disease. That's why her doctors recommended her for New York City's new methadone delivery program. Normally, methadone has to be picked up from a treatment center. But now, during the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government says patients in quarantine can get their methadone delivered to them if they follow security protocols.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR TRUNK OPENING)
REINGOLD: In New York City, that means a team of two health department employees show up to the patient's doorstep. Next, they put the patient on the phone with a staff member from an opioid treatment center.
PAGAN: Hi, Nikita.
NIKITA: Hi, Ana. How are you today?
PAGAN: OK, baby.
REINGOLD: The staffer asks Pagan for a pin, a four-digit code that she gave Pagan over the phone earlier that day. The idea is to make sure the medication is getting to the right person.
NIKITA: You remember the pin?
PAGAN: Yeah. Zero, one, two, three.
NIKITA: Perfect. Thank you.
REINGOLD: And just like that, Pagan has two weeks' worth of medicine. She got on methadone eight years ago to fight a heroin addiction. And normally, she has to trek to downtown Brooklyn every couple of days to get her supply. Now, she says she's grateful that she won't have to make that trip during a pandemic.
PAGAN: I don't know how to say how I feel because it's too many emotions going through, you know, but it's wonderful.
REINGOLD: New York City says it has the capacity to make 1,300 of these deliveries every month. But since the program started up in mid-April, it's made only 70 of them. That's according to Dr. Denise Paone, a research director at the health department. She helped design the program along with opioid treatment providers.
DENISE PAONE: There are also concerns like, is the person stable enough? Do they have a safe place to store their medication?
REINGOLD: Paone says the city is trying to ramp up the number of referrals to the program by hosting webinars and daily calls with doctors to answer questions. The fact that this is where the health department is putting its resources strikes Nick Langworthy as ridiculous. He's the chairman of the New York state Republican Party. He says he'd rather see the health department hand out protective equipment to law enforcement officers and health care workers instead of delivering methadone.
NICK LANGWORTHY: Methadone abuse is a very real problem. At its best, it should only be administered under the care and direct supervision inside a treatment facility.
REINGOLD: Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz leads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees opioid treatment centers. She says her agency had the leeway to OK methadone deliveries because the country is in a national emergency right now. But once that ends, she says the guidance expires.
ELINORE MCCANCE-KATZ: Unless we decide as a department that this is something that we can move forward, and then we will look with our legal counsel as to what authority we have to do that.
REINGOLD: She says she'll fight to keep some of the other changes that have emerged during this period, like using telehealth for new kinds of addiction treatment. But it's unclear what her plans are for methadone deliveries. New York City's health commissioner says if methadone can be delivered during this public health crisis, it should be delivered afterwards during the ongoing opioid epidemic, too.
For NPR News, I'm Olivia Reingold in New York City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.