The nation is finally waking up to the fact that the opioid epidemic – the result of over-prescription and underground sale of opioids – has ruined the lives of millions of Americans.
“Opioids” include both prescription pain killers intended to treat pain and sold under trade names like OxyContin, oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl – and illegal drugs like heroin. According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2.1 million Americans (and possibly more) have an “opioid use disorder” and approximately 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, most from opioid related drugs. There were 1,925 opioid-related deaths in California alone. One respected health publication predicts that as many as 650,000 Americans will die of opioid overdoses in the next ten years.
On October 26, 2017, the President declared the opioid crisis a “public health emergency,” but stopped short of declaring it a “national emergency.” The difference is critical – a national emergency would have meant immediate availability of additional funding. While the White House has said it will begin to allow medicine commonly used for substance abuse or mental health treatment to be prescribed via “telemedicine” (telephone or video treatment) and allow the federal and state governments to make temporary appointments of specialists to respond to the crisis, the Administration has made no additional funding available to combat the opioid crisis. The White House has said that any additional money will need to be specifically allocated by Congress in the upcoming budget.
Forty nine states, including California, have created prescription drug monitoring programs that collect data on prescriptions for opioids and other controlled substances that medical providers can access online. The goal is to allow doctors to identify any suspicious patterns of opioid use. For example, the system could let a doctor see if her patient was obtaining opioid prescriptions from multiple physicians within a short time span.
Many health plans – including Teamster health plans – are implementing stricter standards regarding opioid prescriptions like the 2016 Centers for Disease Control voluntary guidelines for prescription of opioids to treat chronic pain. Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain such as pain after surgery. One study found that 75% of heroin users in treatment had started with prescription painkillers. Many health plans have also imposed strict quantity limitations on the number of opioid pills that can be prescribed for pain-relief after surgery. According to most experts, three days of treatment is usually sufficient to treat pain after surgery, and more than seven days is rarely needed and can lead to addiction.
The IBT has played a critical role in holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in helping to create the epidemic. After the Teamsters advocacy campaign, shareholders of McKesson Corp., the nation’s largest drug distributor, voted to end the company’s practice of tying incentives to the sale of opioids and other controlled substances.
The following steps would go a long way in combating the opioid epidemic:
• Safer prescribing practices – This includes ongoing education for doctors about the risks and benefits of opioids, when to prescribe them, what dose to prescribe, and for how long. This also includes exploring alternative pain treatments such as physical therapy or acupuncture.
• Encouraging medication-assisted treatment to treat opioid addiction. Treatment with buprenorphine and other medications has been proven to be far more effective than treatment without medication.
• Overdose prevention – Naloxone, an overdose antidote, has been proven to reduce overdose deaths when made widely available in the community, especially to first responders, and when prescribed to patients who use heroin or who have been using opioids over the long term.
If you or your family member are covered by a Teamster health fund, you have access to counseling and treatment through the Teamsters Assistance Program (“TAP”) in the Bay Area and the Teamsters Alcohol Rehabilitation Program (“TARP”) in the Central Valley.
Even if you are not covered by a Teamster fund, the resources provided by TAP and TARP may be available to you and your family anyway.
To speak to a TAP counselor call 510-562- 3600. To speak to a TARP counselor call 800- 522-2877.
Beeson, Tayer & Bodine — Oakland: 510-625- 9700. Sacramento: 916-325-2100.