Ethics & Religion
October 12, 2017
How To Solve America's Opioid Addiction
By Mike McManus
There is an opioid crisis in America that few seem to realize.
Last year 64,000 people died from taking opioid drugs - double the
number killed by guns and 24,000 more than who died in traffic
The New York Times published a story about Dr. Thomas Andrew, the chief
medical examiner of New Hampshire, who was slicing through the lung of a
36-year-old woman who died of opioids, when white foam seeped out onto
the autopsy table. Foam in the lungs is a sign of acute intoxication
caused by an opioid. So is a swollen brain, which she also had.
Routine autopsies like this, which takes more than two hours, are
overtaxing medical examiners everywhere. After working on thousands of
sudden expected or violent deaths by opioids - Dr. Andrew has retired.
At age 60 he's entering a seminary to pursue a divinity degree, and
ultimately plans to minister to young people, urging them to stay away
He says, "I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual
dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those
The number of opioid deaths jumped by a stunning 22% over 2015. New
Hampshire, which has more deaths per capita from synthetic opioids like
fentanyl than any other state, lost 500 to opioid deaths, almost 10
times the number in 2000.
Dr. Andrew has had enough. His plan is to become an ordained United
Methodist deacon, with two goals: to serve as a chaplain for the Boy
Scouts of America and to join the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy so he can
minister to troubled hikers. He wants to warn about the dangers of
He said most of the nearly 5,800 people he has examined on his stainless
steel autopsy table "woke the day they died oblivious to the fact it
would be their last on earth."
So he retired from his grim work to enter the seminary. "I'm very, very
hopeful what comes after this, because this -" gesturing toward the
woman he had just autopsied - "is pretty awful."
What lies behind the opioid crisis? Roughly 100 million Americans suffer
from chronic pain. Physicians have over-prescribed legal painkillers -
often with opioid content - that has triggered a tidal wave of addiction
throughout the U.S.
Recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
urge doctors to avoid or dramatically limit these prescriptions in most
Clearly, few are doing so.
Amy Crain was driving her car when she was slammed by another driver,
putting her in the hospital, requiring multiple surgeries that saved her
from paralysis. She was put on prescription painkillers - OxyContin,
methadone and Norco that left her foggy and barely functioning.
"I couldn't lift my daughter, couldn't care for her."
However, she is one of nearly 12 million people who get health care from
Kaiser Permanente where she met Dr. Anh Quan Ngyyen, a Kaiser pain
specialist. She prescribed that Crain take alternative therapies, all
covered by Kaiser's insurance plan. The treatments include needles in
the back, carefully placed by an acupuncturist and yoga training which
she often practices at a local park.
And perhaps most importantly, she's been prescribed fewer and fewer pain
pills. In fact Crain is not taking just a small percentage of the med
she was one on...a result she did not think was possible.
Dr. Ed Ellison, Southern California Executive Medical Director of Kaiser
Permanente, reports that between 2010 and 2015, Kaiser reduced OxyContin,
the long acting opioid, by more than 80%.
He says too many opioid drugs were being prescribed. "We saw just
massive numbers of prescriptions, massive numbers of refills. And not
just that, huge numbers at one time. People were getting 800 to 1,000
pills at a time!
No wonder 64,000 people died of opioid poisoning last year.
Physicians are vastly over-prescribing.
However, Kaiser Permanente demonstrates that those numbers can be pushed
way down, and patients can be helped in other ways to deal with pain.
The President's Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid
Crisis said in July that its "first and most urgent recommendation" is
that President Trump declare a national emergency, to free up funds for
the crisis, and "awaken every American to this simple fact: If this
scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by
everyone, it soon will."
The President has not declared an emergency, and his 2018 budget request
increases addiction treatment funding by less than 2%.
How many hundreds of thousands of people must die before he responds?
Copyright (c) 2017 Michael J. McManus,
President of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist. For previous
columns go to
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