As the opioid epidemic continues to spread and grow unabated, many government and legal organizations are looking to find someone to foot the bill for its effects. Healthcare expenditures, costs associated with lost productivity and family devastation, and costs of legal efforts to manage the problem are high, and cities and states are looking for someone to cover these.
Despite the growing rates of heroin use, abuse, addiction, and overdose, the primary drugs of choice in 2016 cited by those who reported illicit drug use in the past 30 days were prescription painkillers. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that about 3.3 million Americans over the age of 12 were actively abusing prescription painkillers. For this reason and for the hefty toll that painkiller abuse and addiction has taken on Texans, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said that Texas will be joining 40 other states in the creation of a coalition set to investigate whether or not drug makers and distributors broke laws, and thus contributed to the development of the opiate addiction problem in this country.
Eight companies involved in the manufacture or distribution of painkillers have been subpoenaed so far in this process as of September. Texas is taking part in the investigation, but it will likely be a years-long process and there are no foregone conclusions.
Though it is true that drug companies put out commercials touting the benefits of prescription painkillers 20 or more years ago, doctors agreed with the assertion, and some say that federal agencies even supported the aggressive treatment of pain with medication. It is also true that many drug companies have offered incentives to doctors who agreed to prescribe the medications, but it took doctors to agree to put the medications into the hands of consumers.
The government, too, may not have always regulated these interactions successfully or required an effective level of education for those who prescribed the medications. That is, doctors who are not pain management specialists believed the assertions that painkillers were not addictive because they did not have the education to tell them differently – and even if they had, the education at that time may not have directed them to proceed with caution.
Based on all of these actions, patients themselves were not careful with their use. Not only were these medications thrown into the medicine cabinet next to over-the-counter pain relievers and often used interchangeably in the past, but there is still a relative lack of concern for the potential effects. While it is true that millions of people can use the drugs as they are intended and gain benefits that do not have long-term consequences, hundreds of thousands do not. A doctor’s prescription for addictive painkillers has opened the door to a lifelong – and often, life-ending – addiction.
Purdue Pharma, Inc. is included in the lawsuit. They have responded by saying: “While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions. OxyContin accounts for less than 2 percent of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to naloxone – all important components for combating the opioid crisis.”
The company also listed some of their actions that they feel support their concern for the community at large.
- They’ve worked with the National Sheriffs’ Association to put naloxone, an opiate reversal drug, into the hands of first responders who are the first to address a potential overdose victim. No details were included on how much the naloxone costs per unit, how much funding they provide for these efforts, or how much they profit from the sale of the drug in this and other contexts. The cost of naloxone is notably high.
- According to their numbers, 1 percent of patients who were prescribed one or more opiate painkillers received a prescription for OxyContin, the medication most commonly cited as the cause of opiate addiction.
- They note that almost 4 million people received a prescription for OxyContin TRx out of about 233.6 million TRx opiate prescriptions – or 1.7 percent.
They do not acknowledge how many of those who had OxyContin prescriptions developed addictions or died of an overdose from using the medication compared to other drugs. They do not note the cost of addiction on the families that bear the burden. They do not note what they are doing to help doctors and patients better understand the dangers associated with use of the drug, how or if they are aiding in the safe disposal of unused portions of prescriptions, or what they intend to do going forward to positively impact the problem they had a hand in creating and profited from along the way.
The Path Forward
Over the past three decades, we have essentially experimented with these drugs and built up a wealth of data, and that data has been exceptionally informative in helping us to create a more solid, healthful path forward. Already, there have been great changes that are aimed at impacting positive change on the problem of opiate addiction and overdose, especially here in Texas.
Here are just a few:
- Increased education for medical providers
- More safe disposal sites
- Lobbying for increased access to treatment
- Increased access to support for families
Is your family in need of help to fight opiate addiction? Are you ready to seek out treatment services that will help your loved one heal?