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#OurPain: Line between street drugs and prescriptions blurred

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Chronic pain costs the U.S. about $600 billion a year, far more than addiction or illegal drugs.

As the I-Team has reported, in response to a spike in overdose deaths, the CDC last year targeted prescription opioids.

The CDC guidelines were supposed to be voluntary, but instead were enacted into law all over the country. Millions of chronic pain patients have since been cut off from medication, while overdose deaths continue to rise.

Five years ago, few of us had ever heard the word opioid. Now, these viral images are the face of an epidemic — wasted junkies obliterated by dope.

The line between street drugs and prescription medications has been blurred, as if on purpose. Now, all drug deaths get blamed on opioids.  

According to the DEA, the drugs responsible are primarily heroin and fentanyl, illicit drugs smuggled into the country, but legal medications are the target of the 2016 CDC guidelines, which were never meant to be law, but which have been imposed nationwide. Pain experts agree the crackdown is doing far more harm than good.

“Another of the great frauds an deceptions and calling it a crisis. It’s a crisis in those young people out there taking drugs on the street, but these are not legitimate pain patients going to physicians and taking meds as prescribed,” said Dr. Forest Tennant, a chronic pain specialist.

“The idea has taken hold that if you simply stop a pain patient’s opioids you’re doing something about an addiction crisis. You are not,” said Dr. Stefan Kertesz, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Las Vegas PR consultant Terry Murphy admits she is still angry at big pharma for what it unleashed more than a decade ago. During the pill mill wave, a member of her family overdosed and died. Another relative lives with extreme chronic pain. Her views morphed when Murphy herself became a pain patient. She had two surgeries on her neck. Opioids — and her employees — allowed her to run her business from home for almost two years, 

“I really couldn’t turn my neck much. It was very very painful and I have a pretty high tolerance for pain. It was pretty intolerable,” she said. “I did take pain medication from time to time because I didn’t really have to go out a lot, though I thought, gee what if I didn’t have that luxury? What if I was a food server or bartender or construction worker?”

Murphy could afford alternative pain therapies, so wasn’t dependent on opioids alone. She’s still angry at the drug companies but is more nuanced about opioids and the making of pain policies.

“But if you haven’t experienced severe chronic pain, and if you’re not a pain doctor, and you’re not somebody who knows how to provide alternative therapy but you can’t help your patients because they can’t pay for it, those people need to be in that room,” Murphy said.

“It’s a disease that can be triggered by sunlight, by antibiotics. I may have had it my whole life,” said a Henderson professional who has endured crippling pain caused by lupus. He asked that he not be identified.

Opioid therapy allowed him to move and be active. He lost close to 200 pounds, but like millions of others, he battles every month with insurance and pharmacies. The pain is always near.

“It makes you feel like you just want to stop existing, and I would never say that about my family or kids, that I don’t want to be there for them, but you’re in that much pain, you don’t see a way out. It’s soul crushing. All you can concentrate on is how much it hurts and how to get relief,” he said.

Another patient, Jeremy, is still hanging on, still running his own business from home, but has trouble getting around or exercising now that his prescriptions have been slashed, against the wishes of his pain doctor.

“They go in to get their prescriptions filled, and it’s sorry, we’re not taking any new patients. So, having done nothing wrong but have your hip replaced, you don’t get anything for pain, even right after surgery. You get treated like public enemy number one,” he said.

“Before, I couldn’t read a book. Now, I can read if I hold the book up here. I can sleep at night, which is a big bonus, and I can actually spend time with my granddaughter,” Nicole Ball said.

Without meds, she says, her life was a mess. She couldn’t leave her house or play with her kids.

“It was a disaster. Yeah, I felt pretty worthless. Not that I don’t now, but I felt worse then.” 

At a young age, Gary’s body was mangled in an accident. His doctors discovered that because of his genetics, low doses of opioids didn’t work. He needed prescription fentanyl to ease his blinding pain. For awhile, he had a somewhat normal life. That’s gone now.

“The insurance company refuses to pay for it unless you have cancer because it’s so expensive,” he said. “They were charging $20,000 a month for my prescription. I asked a doctor, that’s insane. Why should it cost so much and my doctor’s response was, ‘The DEA forces us to charge that much because they don’t want it on the street.'”

I-Team Reporter George Knapp: “Yet it’s all over the street, just doctors can’t prescribe it.”
Gary: “Right”

Retired pharmacist Rick Martin can no longer follow his passion as a landscape photographer. Instead, he’s poured his energies into advocating on behalf of fellow pain patients. Millions of people have been forced to taper off opioids because of the CDC guidelines.

“Many insurance companies have misinterpreted, misread, misunderstood, and outright lied as far as I’m concerned about the CDC guidelines are intended for. I have quotes from the CDC where they say its basically voluntary, it’s not a rule, law, or regulation. Involuntary tapers are not what they intended,” Martin said.

Read the letter from the CDC to Rick Martin

Another patient advocate, former cheerleader and coach Barby Ingle, spent seven years in a wheelchair because of her injuries and pain. Eventually, pain medication changed her life, but she says fear among medical providers is extreme.

“Many doctors would say it’s all in your head. I had a doctor walk into the room and say, ‘I know what you are trying to do and you’re not going to get away with it,’ and he turned around and walked out. When he did that, he didn’t even examine me. He didn’t talk to me. He didn’t ask any questions. He literally came in and left,” she said.

When faced with years of pain ahead, and no chance of relief, many who are cut off from medication do what Jay Lawrence did. His wife Meredith bought the gun, then drove him to their favorite park.

“He looked at me and said, ‘It’s time to go,’ and he took the gun out, put it up to his chest and he pulled the trigger and he was gone before he hit they ground they tell me. I was the one who called the police,” Meredith Lawrence said.

Find other stories, links and information in #OurPain special section on www.LasVegasNOW.com.

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