I-Team: The Opioid Conundrum

LAS VEGAS - Nightly newscasts across the country are filled with stories about the opioid epidemic -- the opioid crisis. Tens of thousands of Americans who die each year are found with opioids in their systems, and so government at every level has stepped in to put limits on otherwise legal medications, including here in Nevada.

For millions of chronic pain patients, the crackdown has been a nightmare. They are the forgotten victims in the opioid debate.

Approximately 50,000 people a year die with opioids of one kind or another in their systems. The number you don't hear is this one -- there are as many as 25 million Americans who suffer with chronic pain. For many of them, opioid medication means the difference between leading somewhat normal lives, or surviving in constant agony.

These are not the people who O.D. on heroin or mix drugs with booze. For the most part, they suffer and die in silence.

"It was like, for the first time in my life, I wasn't in pain anymore. I felt great for a couple of years and then they started this total crackdown," said Gary, a chronic pain patient, who asked that his real name not be used.

Gary's life changed when his spine was shattered in a rollover accident. After several operations, his doctors prescribed opioids and he was able to lead a somewhat normal life, even as the discs in his back crumbled further. But then the opioid crisis blew up. His prescriptions were cut in half and it became tougher to find a pharmacy that would fill them.

"I'd have to drive to 10 to 12 pharmacies just to get four prescriptions filled. Just to fill them," he said.

Reporter George Knapp: "And they look at you like..."
Gary: "Yeah, like you're a criminal."

"The only ones who understand chronic pain are the ones who have chronic pain. When you have chronic pain, it's on your mind all the time," said Jeremy, a chronic pain patient, who asked that his real name not be used.

Jeremy is a self-employed business professional whose work requires him to both drive and walk daily. A skiing accident and later a hip replacement led to sharp, constant pain over half his body. He tried various surgeries, therapies, and medications but nothing worked until a time-released pain med called oxycontin was developed.

"You can go to work and function and chronic pain patients don't get high off of oxycontin. It just alleviates their pain and allows them to function," he said.

The opioid crisis has meant significant reductions in the amounts that can legally be prescribed for Jeremy, Gary, and pretty much every other chronic pain patient. Contrary to what their doctors recommend, their medications have been reduced by half, sometimes more. And they've been told, more reductions are likely.

For millions of people, the consequences have been immediate and drastic. They can't sleep, can't work, lose their jobs. Some decide to put an end to the constant pain by taking their own lives.

"People are dying. People are committing suicide right now because their doctor tapered them down involuntarily off opioid medications," said Rick Martin.

He has seen it from both sides. He spent decades working as a pharmacist, and even though he has chronic pain from a deteriorating spine and hip, with medication, he continued to work and could also pursue his passion -- landscape photography.

"I used to be able to do stuff by myself, but I can't do that anymore."

Chronic pain patients like Rick follow their doctor's instructions, undergo monthly drug screenings and urinalysis and have become collateral damage in the opioid crisis. Most of the publicity has focused on overdose deaths among people who obtain opioids illegally, mix them with booze or other drugs including heroin. 

The CDC, DEA, and various opioid task forces have responded to deaths caused by illicit drugs by cutting back on legally prescribed medications, the same drugs that make life bearable for millions with chronic pain.

Insurance companies have slashed coverage, and pharmacies now operate under strict quotas, to the point they won't fill prescriptions for new patients, even those fresh out of surgery. Opioid prescriptions have actually declined significantly in each of the last three years, yet opioid deaths keep rising.

"The unintended victims are the senior citizens. If they can't get their medications, they aren't going to go buy heroin and shoot it and die of a heroin overdose. they're going to suffer," Jeremy said.

So, how do we explain that while legal prescriptions keep dropping, opioid deaths keep rising? It isn't a simple issue, though politicians have seized on it as a winner. Cracking down on drugs is a tried and true political strategy, even though enforcement has never worked as a solution to drug abuse.

In the coming months, 8 News NOW will be looking beyond the obvious rhetoric about various opioid issues. As part of this project, we'd like your input. We've created a page where opioid patients, pain doctors, pharmacists, families of O.D. victims can share stories, either publicly or privately.
 


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