Opinion | When The Cure Is Worse Than The Disease
By working to reduce prescribing, government regulators, insurers, law enforcement officials, legislators and other policymakers have ignored the genuine dangers of leaving people in agony, including suicide and increased risk for heart attacks and strokes. And with the Trump administration having pledged to cut the manufacturing of opioids by pharmaceutical companies by an additional 10 percent, even more patients are at risk.
To be sure, opioids have been overprescribed. A Johns Hopkins review of six studies found that over two-thirds of patients reported having unused pills. And for many people, the pain killers either aren’t effective or do more harm than good. But while medical opioid use has fallen by nearly one-third since peaking around 2011 — and deaths associated with prescription opioids have stabilized — overall opioid overdose fatalities have recently hit a high as more potent, illegally manufactured opioids hit the streets.
Indeed, as prescribing fell, deaths connected to illicit opioids skyrocketed. From 2010 to 2016, heroin overdose mortality rose by nearly 500 percent — and mortality associated with illegally manufactured fentanyl jumped 600 percent from 2013 to 2016 alone.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control admit that they do not specifically track suicides by patients who have lost medical access to pain relievers, so we don’t really know how many people are killing themselves because they can’t live with their pain.
But there is much anecdotal evidence that chronic pain drives patients to suicidal thoughts. Karen King, for example, says she has had four hospitalizations because of suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past year alone. She suffers chronic pain from a broken neck. When her doctor cut her medication, she had to close the quilt store she owned in Massachusetts. Without medication, she couldn’t stand or carry bolts of fabric. “It broke my heart,” she said.
Jeff Geurin is another example. He was a cryptologic linguist in the Air Force when he was wounded in a parachute jump accident. He retrained as a surgical technician after a medical discharge from the military in 2008. Last year, his doctor ceased his medication, leaving him with such intense back pain that he had “plans made” for suicide, before he found a new doctor.
In the rush to reduce opioid misuse, it is easy to forget that millions of people have safely taken these drugs for years. Data show that less than 8 percent of chronic pain patients become addicted, according to a study that has the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a co-writer. And overwhelmingly, prescription opioid addiction doesn’t begin with a doctor’s prescription: About 80 percent of people who start misusing these drugs are getting them from family, friends and other people’s medicine cabinets — not from legitimate pain treatment.