By Cindy Steinberg
Cindy Steinberg is the policy chair for the Massachusetts Pain Initiative and the national director of policy and advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation.
"Charlie Baker vows to tackle state opiate problem," was the Boston Globe headline two days after Election Day.
It’s good to hear from our newly elected governor that he plans to take steps to curb the ongoing problem with illegal use of prescription medication in our state. There’s little doubt that too many lives are being harmed by drug abuse and addiction.
But in a quest to fix one problem, policymakers need to consider the potential unintended negative consequences for the patients for whom these medications are a lifeline.
Gov.-elect Baker said in that Globe interview that he plans to convene a coalition of lawmakers, health care providers and labor leaders to confront the opioid crisis in our state. Representatives of the pain community — an estimated 1.2 million Massachusetts residents live with chronic pain — must be included in these discussions as well.
For many with chronic pain, the right medications mean the difference between a life worth living or not.
But despite these legitimate needs, more and more I’m hearing from residents of our state who are unable to access treatment that their doctors say they need and that they depend on. These are not addicts; these are people who are trying to manage their lives with debilitating conditions such as cancer, diabetic neuropathy, sickle cell, daily migraine, fibromyalgia, severe back pain and many others.
These are not addicts; these are people who are trying to manage their lives with debilitating conditions such as cancer, diabetic neuropathy, sickle cell, daily migraine, fibromyalgia.
Not including members of the pain community in discussions about how these medications are prescribed, regulated and controlled marginalizes the lives of thousands of Massachusetts citizens who live with pain caused by a myriad of conditions and serious injuries.
There is not a silver bullet solution to solving the abuse of prescription drugs. We need to take a thoughtful, multifaceted approach to ensure that those who need pain medication have access to it, and that those who choose to abuse these medications are stopped. There is no group more invested in making sure that medications are responsibly controlled than members of the pain community.
Last legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers did take a step forward: they passed legislation on medications specially formulated to deter abuse.
"Abuse deterrent formulations" are opioids with physical and chemical properties that prevent chewing, crushing, grating, grinding, or extracting, or contain another substance that reduces or defeats the euphoria that those susceptible to substance abuse disorders experience. The new law requires insurance companies to provide the same coverage for the new abuse deterrent formulations as non-abuse deterrents, and they are not permitted to shift any additional cost of these medications to patients. It makes doctors more able to prescribe these medications without pushback from insurance companies.
Abuse deterrent formulations are not the only solution, but they are a good first step in balancing the legitimate needs of pain patients with the need to reduce medication abuse.
Other efforts must also include more robust education of medical professionals and of consumers to keep the medication out of the hands of potential abusers in the first place. Government statistics show that 78.5 percent of those who abuse prescription pain medication did not obtain them from a doctor themselves.
As someone who personally suffers from debilitating chronic pain, I have firsthand experience with the myriad challenges faced each day by the millions of Americans with severe chronic pain. I encourage Governor Baker to work to eliminate improper use of prescription medications, while remembering the medical needs of the chronic pain community.
Cindy Steinberg tweets at @CindySteinberg_.