Steve Birr | Vice Reporter
Americans suffering from chronic pain are “begging” health regulators to restore their access to opioid painkillers amid the broader federal crackdown.
Patients showed up in droves to the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration Monday for a hearing on how to best administer care to people living with chronic pain. They argue recent actions taken to combat rampant opioid abuse are causing a chilling effect among medical providers, making it increasingly difficult for patients to access the prescription opioids that are critical to their care, reported NBC News.
Chronic pain advocates are particularly critical of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to rising overdose death rates, which instructs providers to greatly limit the number of opioid prescriptions they write, and encourages patients to exhaust all alternatives before turning to painkillers. (RELATED: How One Painkiller Ignited The Addiction Epidemic)
“I have yet to have a doctor accept me as a patient,” Sandra Flores, a former emergency room nurse who suffers from a condition that inflames membranes protecting her brain and spine, told NBC News. “No doctors will fight. They just don’t want to get into trouble. They have forgotten the people these drugs were made for. When can I have medicine so I can just be comfortable in my body?”
Patients living in daily pain say the CDC guidelines, along with mounting lawsuits targeting prescribers and state limits on prescriptions, are leaving them with little access to medications they desperately need to function. They also pointed out the majority of possible alternatives to opioid painkillers are not covered by insurance.
Patients giving testimony noted how dire the situation is for people in chronic pain, with one saying, “suicide is always an option for us.”
“To the FDA — we are begging you. Correct the CDC’s egregious mistakes,” said Rose Bigham, with the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain, according to NBC News. “The CDC recommendations have done irreparable harm to people in pain.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the agency is trying to find a way to balance the need to combat rampant opioid addiction with the appropriate treatment of those in intense pain with prescription painkillers. Opioid deaths are increasingly linked to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, however, prescription opioids still accounted for more than 40 percent of opioid linked deaths in 2016, killing roughly 46 people each day.
“We don’t want to perpetuate practices that led to the misuse of these drugs, and the addiction crisis,” said Gottlieb, according to NBC News. “At the same time, we don’t want to act in ways that are poorly targeted, and end up disadvantaging legitimate patients. In most circumstances, opioids should only be used for the treatment of acute pain and prescribed for short durations of time.”
Drug overdose deaths surged in 2016 by 21 percent, claiming more than 64,000 lives, according to the CDC. The increase is driven primarily by opioids, which claimed 42,249 lives in 2016, a 28 percent increase over the roughly 33,000 lives lost to opioids in 2015.
Deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, experienced a particularly dramatic increase, more than doubling from 9,580 lives in 2015 to 19,413 lives in 2016.
The epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S., officials say. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.