No one disputes that opiate addiction is a national problem. Statistics show that over 52,000 Americans died because of drug abuse, or about 142 people a day. One-third of those deaths are from opioids prescribed by doctors.
Although a national problem, Florida led the nation in opioid abuse until recently. Individuals from all over the southeastern United States flooded into Florida to visit our “pill mills.” I-75 was known as the gateway to easy drugs. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration referred to I-75 as the “Oxy Express.”
A single pill mill in Tampa wrote scripts for over 1 million oxycodone pills in a six-month period in 2010. Of the top 100 doctors in the nation prescribing oxycodone, 98 resided in Florida.
The situation was so bad in Florida that Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi created the Florida Regulatory Drug Enforcement Task Force to combat drug abuse in Florida and crack down on the pill mills.
The Task Force had great success in reducing the abuse by pill mills. The number of oxycodone pills prescribed dropped from 650 million in 2010 to 300 million in 2013. Almost 4,000 individuals were arrested including 67 doctors. Over 848,000 pills were seized, as well as $10 million in cash. 254 pill mills were shut down.
Changes in the Florida drug laws now require patients to see a certified pain specialist monthly in order to receive prescriptions for pain meds. Where 98 out of the top 100 doctors prescribing oxycodone resided in Florida in 2010, that number was zero in 2013.
Florida had great success in closing the pill mills and eliminating much of the drug abuse that existed. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that individuals with chronic pain have a very difficult time getting their pain meds in a timely fashion. Pain specialists can write a prescription for a 30-day supply of pain meds. You can’t have your next prescription filled before you use your 30-day supply. The problem is that pharmacies, at least 25 percent of the time, do not have pain meds in stock.
I visited my pain specialist last week and received my script for a 30-day supply to be filled Feb. 13. I went to five different pharmacies before finding one that would fill my prescription. It took almost two hours and driving over 25 miles in order to get the meds I was entitled to receive. There is enough stress with chronic pain; I do not need the additional stress of trying to find a pharmacy that will fill my prescription.
My pain started at age 12 and was related to disc and nerve problems in my back. At age 20 I had my first back surgery. It helped, but never ended the pain problems. For the past 30 years my left leg has been numb and the muscles have atrophied. At the present time, I have had seven surgeries, including three back operations and a total knee replacement.
Because of chronic pain, I often can’t stand for more than a few minutes and have problems walking more than a short distance. The pain meds help me to function. I would much prefer no pain and no pain meds, but that option is out of my control. The best I can hope for is to have my pain meds available.
About 25 percent of the time the pharmacy I use does not have the pain meds available. I am forced to make the trek to pharmacies hoping to find one that has the meds available. The problem with that, in addition to wasting my time, is that the state of Florida may look at this pharmacy hopping as an attempt to game the system. It is merely an attempt to get the drugs I need.
Many pharmacies won’t carry pain meds for fear of being robbed or because they are frustrated with the record-keeping involved with pain meds. Other pharmacies have told me that they will only fill orders for regular customers; one pharmacy told me they will fill my order, but only if I transfer all my prescriptions to them. That would cost me a great deal more because my insurance provides lower prices for medicines through their supplier.
Those who have never experienced chronic pain, which is most of the population, have little sympathy for those suffering from chronic pain. Those suffering from chronic pain don’t want sympathy, but they do want your empathy. They want you to understand that chronic pain is real and we want to receive the medicines that will help us function.
Florida had an opioid epidemic and dealt with it. That is a good thing. But, Florida also has an obligation to make sure its citizens receive the medical care they need. Those with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other debilitating ailments expect to get the meds they need to live a healthy and productive life. Those suffering from chronic pain expect the same thing.
Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.