#OurPain: Patients share stories of being cut off from medication

LAS VEGAS - Millions of patients in chronic pain are required to sign contracts with their doctors which authorize random drug tests, so the physicians can verify the patients are taking their medications as prescribed.    

It is also a check to see if patients are abusing other drugs, so doctors can weed out any addicts seeking pain meds.

But now, because of pressure from the CDC, DEA, and other government agencies, pain patients who follow doctors' orders have seen their medications slashed or eliminated.

Since the I-Team first announced this project back in September, we've been flooded with emails, phone calls, and Facebook posts from pain patients telling us their stories.  

The stories are gut-wrenching, heartbreaking. Many of them feel abandoned by their doctors, are no longer able to work, can't care for their families. Worst of all, they worry about the next round of cuts in their medications.

"June 24, 1961, I had an airplane crash," said John Lear.

At the ripe old age of 18, fledgling pilot John Lear crashed a plane and was hospitalized with multiple injuries.

"I broke both ankles, both legs in three places. Broke my jaw, all my front teeth, had a concussion, crushed my neck," Lear said.

Doctors told Lear he would never walk again. They were wrong. He spent 35 years as an airline captain, 15 of those as a pilot for the CIA. After retirement, Lear crushed his neck and spine in a mining accident.

He reluctantly took two prescribed pain medications that left him in a haze but eased the pain. That ended last year when medical providers were pressured by the CDC and DEA to cut back on opioids.

"I go to Walgreens. They said, 'Sorry, your doctor has been down here and says you're taking an illegal drug methamphetamine, and I can't issue this.'"

The idea that the 74-year-old retiree who rarely leaves home was partying with meth is ridiculous, but a urine test supposedly showed 10,000 nanograms of the drug in his system.

"I mean, I wouldn't know what it is. I've never taken an illegal drug. I've been flying my entire life. You can't take drugs and fly," Lear said.

Lear was in agony without the medication. Plus his health plan kicked him out. It's not uncommon.

"A lot of doctors are doing that now, not waiting for them to die, just saying I'm not treating you anymore, or another method they use is they give them a urine drug test which are notoriously bad, unreliable and they say oops, there is marijuana in your system. I'm not going to treat you anymore," said Pat Anson, Pain News Network.

In Nevada, as elsewhere, pain patients sign contracts and agree to certain conditions including random drug tests. Millions of patients who've played by the rules have seen their prescriptions cut in half or eliminated, supposedly as a way to prevent opioid addiction.

The turning tide or riptide? The changing opioid epidemic

"The unintended victims are the senior citizens. If they can't get their medications, they aren't going to buy heroin and shoot it and die of a heroin overdose. They're going to suffer," said Jeremy, a chronic pain patient, who doesn't want his identity known.

He was healthy his entire life but then needed his replacement surgeries, and developed diabetes. With medication, he managed his chronic pain enough to still run his own business and support his family.

His doctor didn't want to cut his prescription but felt pressured to reduce it by half, which means Jeremy is in pain pretty much all the time, and is running out of hope.

"I want to be a productive citizen. I don't want my fellow citizens of Nevada or the U.S. to pay my bills and to cause them to have to do that because someone wants to manipulate my pain specialist doctor. It doesn't make any sense medically or financially."

The I-Team has received more than 600 emails and letters from pain patients in similar situations, patients who are not addicts but who need medicine to function. Amy has an incurable condition, RSD, more painful than childbirth. When her medication was cut, she could no longer work.

Pam's rheumatoid arthritis was previously manageable, but without meds, her quality of life is gone. Stacy is part of a support group for pancreatitis patients and admits quote "some of us have suicide plans in place for when we can't take it any longer."  

Story after story, from solid citizens who don't drink or smoke, whose lives have been shattered in the last year and feel abandoned by their doctors.

Las Vegas family practice physician Dr. Maurice Gregory bucks the trend in two ways. He still treats pain patients, and he makes house calls to help those with mobility issues. Slashing opioids across the board, as a reaction to addict overdosing on street drugs is stupid, he says.

"That's like going to a parking lot and you see almost all the handicap spaces are taken up by people who don't have a handicap sticker. So, you say, bright idea, what we'll do is reduce the total number of handicap spaces. What kind of sense? What does that do to the people who need the spaces?"

The I-Team followed along with Dr. Gregory as he made his house calls and spoke with pain patients. Mostly, they are fearful about what their lives will be like if their pain meds are cut even more.

Suicides among chronic pain patients have spiked in the last two years. It's not an idle threat. people lose all hope and decide to end their pain the only way they know.

More stories, links and information regarding opioids can be found in a special section #OurPain.


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