Opioid prescription cuts push patients to brink, says Pierce County woman. And she’s not even halfway off her dose

Pierce County resident Maria Higginbotham is a chronic pain patient. She lives in the Key Peninsula community of Wauna.
Pierce County resident Maria Higginbotham is a chronic pain patient. She lives in the Key Peninsula community of Wauna. Courtesy photo

In 2003, I was a successful bank manager and mom to two active boys. I was happy, healthy and my life was exactly where I wanted it to be.

Then one day, I went to my mailbox and fell to my knees. Suddenly I was in so much pain I couldn’t walk. I was admitted to the hospital for the first of 12 operations on my spine. The discs in my back just kept buckling, one by one.

My back has never truly recovered and continues to degenerate, and I have been diagnosed with several other incurable painful diseases. But I had a life thanks to my pain management doctor, who after trying all available alternatives, prescribed opioids to dull my pain.

I was able to spend time with my family, do things around the home, cook, walk my dogs and play in my garden. I even enjoyed a few trips. There was less pain in my life for several years.

That’s no longer the case. I am now one of thousands of chronic pain patients being tapered down off opioid medications without consent. In March, my doctor told me he was going to reduce my dose by 75 percent to get me to a dose recommended in a federal guideline.

That guideline was issued in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While intended as voluntary guidance for primary care physicians, it has been misapplied by physicians, state legislatures, insurers and Medicaid programs.

Fearful of losing their licenses or being sent to jail, physicians are treating the guideline as a one-size-fits-all mandate.

I am not alone. In a new report, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases like mine in Washington state alone.

I’m not even halfway down off my dose, and the pain is already so intense that I need help doing simple things like getting out of bed or going to the bathroom.

I am almost completely bedridden. I am a burden on my friends and family, who have to help me with almost everything I do.

My doctor is empathetic and believes I need the medication. He also knows I have followed every one of the clinic’s rules. I have never abused my medication and I store it safely. But he feels like the risk of liability is too high if he continues to prescribe me a higher dose.

The Human Rights Watch report shows that physicians across the country are under intense pressure to reduce prescribing. They worry about potential legal repercussions, state regulations and barriers erected by insurance companies.

The CDC states it doesn’t recommend taking patients off opioids without their consent, and it does not mandate any kind of “maximum dose.” Nonetheless, doctors around the country are leaning on numbers in the guideline to protect themselves from legal trouble.

Many Washington residents spent the holidays enjoying time with their families. But this time of year is a sad one for me. I can’t help my family prepare, can’t fully take part in celebrations and am constantly reminded how much better my life was one year ago.

Opioid medications are the only thing that have worked for me. If I didn’t have to take them, I wouldn’t. To take them away from a patient like me is to force me to live in agony.

I commend efforts to battle the addiction crisis our country faces, but I implore our federal and state governments to take patients with severe pain like me into account.

We have a right to appropriate medical treatment and should not be forced to choose between a life of massive suffering or suicide.

Maria Higginbotham is a chronic pain patient in Wauna, on the Key Peninsula.