Maura Healey on Opioid Epidemic

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey shared her thoughts on our society’s opioid epidemic in yesterday’s Boston Globe (“Cutting off the opioid epidemic at the root”). Despite all the attention devoted to this issue by legislators, public safety officials, and community groups, nothing will change, she wrote, until “we change the culture around how opioids are prescribed, and dramatically reduce the number of pills available.”

Healey points out that cheap heroin has been around for decades so that’s not the cause of today’s spike in overdose deaths. What has changed is the availability of powerful prescription pain pills that predictably lead to addiction. Medical studies show, she writes, that up to a third of long-term opioid users meet the criteria for addiction and that physical dependence can happen in as few as five days.

The Attorney General’s office is pursuing those who prescribe these pills illegally, but the bigger problem is those who prescribe them recklessly. The state already has an online database that allows prescribers to check whether the patient is already getting a prescription from another provider. But since checking this system is just voluntary, “only one in four doctors” uses it.

Why isn’t it mandatory for doctors to check this statewide database before prescribing potentially addictive pain medication? Healey doesn’t answer that question directly, but hints at the reason – push back from the pharmaceutical industry and its lobbyists:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has proposed nationwide guidelines to help medical professionals across the country understand when and how opioids should be used, particularly for chronic pain. The pharmaceutical lobby and some sectors of the medical community have pushed back against these guidelines, calling them too restrictive.

When it comes to a conflict between protecting the citizenry or protecting the corporate bottom line, always bet on Corporate America. Next time you hear a politician or commentator ranting about “job killing regulations” know that you’re hearing the code words for protecting profits over people.

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