Thanks to new federal guidelines, it’s likely to become harder to get access to strong painkillers that are fueling a crisis of addiction in the United States.
It’s about time.
Unless you just had surgery or an acute injury, suffer from cancer or are terminally ill, the guidelines mean that doctors probably will think twice about prescribing opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin.
For the last 15 years, it’s become almost routine for many doctors to write prescriptions for opioids to treat such chronic conditions as back pain, arthritis and migraine headaches.
At first it was because the medical community had been criticized for not treating pain more aggressively. And pharmaceutical companies contended the drugs were nonaddictive, something we now know not to be true. But more and more, patients were demanding the “good stuff” to treat chronic pain, even though other methods might be more effective in the long term.
Many patients became hooked, and if access to prescription drugs was cut off or became too expensive, they often turned to street drugs such as heroin.
The result: Communities across America are facing serious addiction problems, and more people are dying of opioid-related overdoses than are killed in car crashes. It’s a national health emergency so dire that President Barack Obama, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration are all weighing in with strategies to address what is being called a “doctor-driven crisis.”
The president is proposing making $1.1 billion more available in his 2017 budget to treat opioid addiction. That’s important because there are far too few treatment slots to meet the demand. In King County, for instance, more people are seeking treatment for heroin addiction than for alcoholism.
But the treatment picture is complicated by the fact that many communities, including Puyallup, have experienced NIMBY opposition to new or expanded programs. That’s shortsighted, condemning addicts who want help to continue seeking ways to feed their habits.
The CDC recently issued new guidelines for providers, urging them to only prescribe opioids for short-term pain episodes of three to seven days, not for chronic conditions. Doctors should first try alternatives that include anti-inflammatories and exercise, which have been shown to be effective without risking addiction. Opioids should be prescribed only as the last resort, the CDC says.
The FDA has issued stronger warning labeling on 87 brand-name and 141 generic opioids. The agency has been criticized for approving too many new opioids for an already glutted market.