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Frustrated with big pharmaceutical companies ability to block or slow down federal initiatives regarding opioid painkillers, several states are considering their own regulations. States, like Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, have compelling reasons for wanting to pass these regulations. Rates of fatal drug overdoses have been on the rise for years, in large part, due to opioid painkillers. Yet, they are still the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the country.
Advocates for tighter controls on prescription pain meds have been complaining for years that the pharmaceutical drug lobby has federal regulators in their pockets. Vermont Governor, Peter Shumlin, who famously devoted his entire state of the state speech in 2014 to the heroin crisis in his state, told The New York Times, “The states are going to lead on this one because Big Pharma has too much power.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that overdose deaths related to opioid painkillers and heroin rose by more than 14 percent in 2014, totaling nearly 29,000 fatalities. As the CDC prepares to release suggested guidelines for doctors prescribing these meds, at least a few states have instituted their own measures.
How are State Governments Reacting to Opioid Prescriptions?
- Massachusetts, in March of this year, passed legislation limiting opioids prescribed for acute pain to a seven day supply
- Kentucky, as well as a few other states, have created databases that doctors must check before prescribing patients opioids to insure that they’re not receiving similar medications from another physician. As a result, prescriptions for opioids in Kentucky have fallen by more than 8 percent
- Blue Shield and Blue Cross of Massachusetts has a model that several states are watching closely. Under this plan, doctors cannot provide more than a 15 day supply of the meds to patients and must seek prior approval from the insurer before prescribing them, unless the meds are for patients with cancer or for those receiving palliative treatments
The American Academy of Pain Management reports that there are currently 375 different propositions across state governments that would regulate prescription painkillers and pain clinics in some form or fashion.
There has been, however, very little coordination across state lines and experts have a difficult time keeping a good account of all the legislation.
Because of all the vastly different state laws, critics claim it’s impossible to measure whether or not they are having a positive impact on the opioid crisis as a whole. Some take it one step further and believe that limiting access to prescription painkillers is driving those with a dependency into the streets where develop heroin addictions.
Others argue that’s not an excuse to do nothing. They point to mounting research that shows patients who use opioids in high doses have more health problems because of the drugs.
What Health Problems are Associated with Continued Opioid Use?
- Greater sensitivity to pain
- Far more likely to become addicted
- Reduction in the body’s ability to produce hormones
- Complications with other issues, such as sleep apnea
- Much greater risk of overdosing
Given the human and financial toll opioid painkillers have caused, states are considering greater cooperation in their regulation efforts.
In July, the National Governors Association will convene and they are expected to discuss issues surrounding opioid prescriptions. “If we could adopt policies regionally or nationally,” Shumlin said in the same New York Times interview, “we could make some real progress.”