Crackdown on Opioid Prescriptions Leaves Chronic Pain Patients Without Options
Cathy, who didn’t want her last name to be revealed, caught polio as a baby and suffered from fibromyalgia, she developed arthritis as a teenager, and her nerves started to die as a 40-year-old. “I am a chronic pain patient, I have been on pain pills for thirty years. It has allowed me to raise a child, be a good wife, and to retire gracefully with money of my own,” she said of her need for prescriptions. “Without them, I would be a ward of the state. I have never, never upped my dosage or abused the drug.”
A growing number of chronic pain patients have indicated the efforts by state legislators’ hoping to place limits on overprescribing have made their lives unbearable. “It’s insane,” Cathy said. “We are an infinitely easy target in the war on drugs.”
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there were enough prescriptions written in North Carolina for every person to hold more than 65 pills. The state has exempted chronic pain patients from its methods for cracking down on opioid prescriptions, but with legal crackdowns and controversy over using opioids, fewer physicians are prescribing them, anyway.
Thomas Kline, a retired North Carolina physician, decided to track the number of suicides he believes were caused by forced cutbacks of pain medication. So far, there are thirty-three people on his list. “These people are no longer with us due to the policy of ‘you are better off without pain medicines,’” Kline said. “Not treating a person in pain is negligence. Abandoning people with painful disease to the streets, with no doctor, is negligence.”
“Smarter, safer prescribing is one tool among many that we’re deploying to combat the opioid crisis,” North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper said last year. “Setting initial limits on these powerful drugs can help reduce the number of people who become addicted to opioids and it can ultimately save lives.”
For clinics looking to cut down their pill counts or their paperwork, the easiest option is not to treat chronic pain patients at all, according to Cato Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Jeffrey Singer. “This crackdown on docs with the subscription monitoring program — everyone is under surveillance for how many prescriptions they write — it’s really frightening doctors,” Singer said. “This has had a chilling effect that has made all doctors afraid to prescribe opioids.”
Physicians fear they will only be enabling addiction when they try to treat chronic pain. “Anybody who takes opioids is likely to become an addict. That’s an important myth,” Kline said with frustration.
When Nancy Henson’s primary care doctor decided to cut down on her dosage, she didn’t know what to do. “When you have pain from back surgeries (two fusions) that will never go away, pain from fibromyalgia, and the weird pain from neuropathy, it takes a combo of pain meds to make life bearable,” Henson said. “If they do not make exceptions for severe pain patients, we’ll be seeing more suicides. That’s a fact. Not me, but I can understand the frustration that leads to it.”
Some say that limiting legal opioid prescriptions is a recipe for disaster because chronic pain patients will just turn to street drugs instead. “Lots of patients tell me [doctors] stopped their pain meds,” Forsyth County Emergency Service Captain Tara Tucker said. “We’ve actually seen older folks who have been on chronic pain medications for years that their doctors stopped giving them switch to heroin and overdosing.”