Michael Vasquez, left, and Dr. Brad Archer, photo by Duane Tinkey
Michael Vasquez, left, and Dr. Brad Archer, photo by Duane Tinkey

Addiction to narcotic painkillers – a silent epidemic in the United States – is creating a niche for a new specialty medical clinic in West Des Moines with a mission to help patients manage their use of high-risk prescription drugs.

Harbor View Medical, founded by award-winning entrepreneur Michael Vasquez, focuses on avoiding or treating dependence through a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach to medication management and compliance.

“We’ve found that compliance has been an issue and a challenge,” said Vasquez, who in 2006 founded St. Gregory Retreat Centers LLC, a Des Moines-based detoxification and addiction treatment center that has gained national recognition. Vasquez, who has formed other health-care ventures that have been acquired by large corporations, earlier this year was named a regional finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, an award he previously won in 2000.

To help companies determine whether employees may benefit its services, Harbor View offers an Employee Prescription Compliance Review. The free analysis of prescription claims data uses software that identifies research-backed indicators of potential drug dependence.

“What we’ve found with the larger employers that are self-insured is they have a little bit more control to identify and possibly intervene from a safety and health/wellness aspect,” Vasquez said. Under health privacy laws, individual employee data cannot be identified or provided to the employer, but an aggregate report provides indicators of potential problems in the company as a whole.

Using data from the review, Harbor View might recommend, for example, that a client company revise its health plan to require a physician review before a painkiller prescription is renewed a fourth time.

“If you’re an employer trying to decide if you want our service, we will do this assessment at no charge,” Vasquez said. “And if you sign up, we will run it for you monthly to continue to assess the plan.”

An estimated 65 million Americans take prescription painkillers for chronic pain. An average of 40 people die each day from prescription overdoses, and one infant is born each hour addicted to painkillers. Abuse of prescription medicines is the fastest-growing form of substance abuse in Iowa, according to the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

In 2010, there were 39 reported deaths in Iowa from prescription painkiller overdoses, a tenfold increase from a decade earlier. Hydrocodone, a narcotic painkiller, is the most-prescribed drug in the state, with more than 72 million doses prescribed to Iowans in 2010.

Although research has shown that only 4 percent of patients become addicted to prescription painkillers if they take their medication correctly, a study of 1 million patients found that up to 75 percent of patients are not compliant. In other words, they do not take their medications as directed.

Harbor View’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brad Archer, estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 people in Greater Des Moines take narcotic prescription drugs for chronic pain.

“There is clearly a need to assess these patients for compliance with their prescriptions and to evaluate the opportunity to taper and discontinue their narcotic prescription,” he said. The opportunity for physical dependency on painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet is nearly 100 percent in most patients within as little as three days, Archer said.

Both Archer and Harbor View’s medical director, Dr. Charles Wadle, hold pharmacy degrees in addition to their medical degrees. Archer is currently chief of staff at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. Wadle, who is board certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine, also serves as medical director for Magellan of Iowa, the behavioral health contractor for Iowa Medicaid.

Vasquez, a Drake University graduate, has a track record of innovative ventures. In 1990 he founded a company that established one of the first electronic medical record systems. That company went public and was eventually sold to 3M Health Care. In 1997 he developed the first real-time processing system for hospitals to link directly to Medicare to increase the speed of payment delivery and reduce fraud; that business was bought by UnitedHealth Group Inc.

Harbor View has “a very simple mission with a very complex problem,” Vasquez said. “It’s to give hope back to these people who have lost it.”