It is a sad cycle we know in Kentucky all too well. Public officials, law enforcement, and the medical community take actions to combat the ever-growing challenge of prescription drug abuse, only to be met with new problems as criminal drug peddlers and addicts adapt. Meanwhile, families are torn apart, innocent children are harmed and lives are lost.
Prescription drug overdose remains the leading cause of accidental deaths nationwide, claiming more lives each year than heroin and cocaine combined. A new report ranks Kentucky seventh in the nation for drug overdose deaths among young people, ages 12 to 25.
Regulators and the press are often quick to vilify the easy targets, including the makers of pain medicines and physicians who prescribe them for their patients. Certainly, some bad actors in these ranks are to blame. But they are the exception, not the rule. In fact, a 2012 national survey found that almost 70 percent of prescription opioids used for non-medical purposes are obtained from family or friends. Less than 7 percent are obtained from drug dealers or various physicians.
The vast majority of physicians go to great lengths to understand the needs of their patients, diagnose their pain and its causes, and treat them effectively. We pay very close to attention to any signs of improper use.
Unfortunately, this often misdirected criticism causes many opinion leaders to overlook the critical fact that prescription opioids are an important and legitimate treatment option for many Americans who suffer chronic and severe pain.
Thus we are left with a conundrum. Do we continue to manufacture and prescribe medications that provide critical relief to millions? Or, do we take drastic measures to restrict the availability of these medications—even from those who legitimately need them—in an effort to restrain illegal drug abuse?
Fortunately, recent advances in medical science have created a much better alternative: abuse-deterrent opioids (ADOs). These re-formulated versions of common opioid medications provide an innovative, impactful approach to combating abuse that still enables patients to get the pain relief they need.
ADOs work by placing physical and chemical barriers in the medication that prevent it from being crushed, injected or otherwise tampered with. While not foolproof, ADOs are a significant step forward in combatting Kentucky’s long-standing drug epidemic.
They have received widespread support from health care providers, law enforcement officials and lawmakers as part of a comprehensive effort to prevent prescription drug abuse and promote appropriate pain management. In a recent letter, U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers and Andy Barr called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to encourage providers to prescribe ADOs. “It’s really a matter of life and death,” Rogers said.
The Food and Drug Administration has also called for an increase in the production of ADOs, saying the products “have promise to help reduce prescription drug abuse.”
If we are ever going to break the terrible cycle of addiction, we must accept two undeniable truths regarding prescription opioids. The first is that millions of Americans depend on these medications for valid reasons and, in the vast majority of cases, are under strict and closely monitored treatment plans prescribed by their physicians. Secondly, these medications will always remain a target for criminal abuse, as well as those who unfortunately become addicted to medications during treatment.
Therefore, commonsense solutions like ADOs are needed to ensure proper access to these medicines for those who legitimately need them while discouraging those who abuse them.
The effectiveness of ADOs in curbing drug abuse depends entirely on their availability for doctors to prescribe. Unfortunately, many insurance companies refuse to cover ADOs or have put complicated barriers in place to restrict patient access to these medications. This is a mistake, and must be rectified.
ADO formulations can only save lives and prevent addiction if they are recognized as a legitimate and important tool in fighting drug abuse and properly covered by insurers.
That is why everyone — providers, insurers, manufacturers, law enforcement, policymakers and others — must work together to ensure the needs of legitimate patients are met while also stopping life-threatening abuse at its source.