As doctors limit opioids, some pain patients abandoned

Hydrocodone opioid pills
Fearing criminal charges or the loss of their medical license, some doctors are reluctant to prescribe opioid painkillers. (Getty/smartstock)

Last year, when the government issued strict guidelines on prescription opioid painkillers, many doctors worried that it would be difficult for patients who need the medications to treat chronic pain to get those drugs. And that's just what's happened.

Millions of patients who are dependent on painkillers are being abandoned by the medical system, and face pain and drug withdrawal as doctors are reluctant to prescribe opioids, according to Bloomberg, which described the suicide of 53-year-old Doug Hale after he could no longer get the high doses of opioids he had been taking for years.

Fearing possible criminal charges and even the loss of their medical licenses, doctors have been prescribing fewer opioids, according to the report. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since its peak in 2010, prescriptions for higher-dose opioids dropped 41% from 2010 to 2015.

Offering help to patients with medical opioid addiction has become a business opportunity for some, Bloomberg said. For example, Breaking Benzo, a telemedicine startup based in Palo Alto, California, offers online psychiatry appointments and access to health coaches for people seeking to quit opioids or benzodiazepines. Available now in California, the service costs $349 a month and does not currently accept insurance, according to the report. The company plans to expand to at least 10 other states by next year, including some of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, and is in the process of getting certified for insurance coverage.

The country’s highest ranking health official, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D., told NPR that he’s no stranger to the pain of drug addiction.

Adams said he recently visited his brother in state prison where his sibling is trying to get treatment for addiction. “Personally, I’ve dealt with it . . . So, I want folks to understand, I share that story, because I want folks to understand that addiction is a chronic disease and that if we don't treat it as such, we will be doomed to continue in this vicious cycle,” Adams said in an interview.

In Indiana, where he served as state health commissioner, Adams was at the helm during an outbreak of cases of HIV fueled by intravenous drug use in one area of the state, so he said he has seen the crisis play out in real life.

As a White House analysis declared that the true cost of the opioid epidemic in 2015 was more than half a trillion dollars, Adams said the government has addressed the initial recommendations of the president’s commission on opioids and is working to address further recommendations made last month. Adams said he understands the frustration of those who think Trump should be doing more than declaring the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, but said it will take people working together to reverse the opioid epidemic in which more than 150 people die every day from overdoses.