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Ethics & Religion
October 12, 2017
Column #1,885
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 accidents!

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 from drugs.

He says, "I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind."

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 opioid drugs.

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 cases.

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, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. For previous columns go to Hit Search for any topic.

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