For many Americans suffering from opioid addiction overdosing is only the first step in a horrifying cycle of relapse and re-treatment. Some individuals in the throes of addiction experience months or years of sobriety only to be triggered into relapse and overdose. This is a phenomenon I’ve come into personal contact with through the struggles of family members and friends.
With the proliferation of the life-saving Narcan syringe, many lives have been saved. However, when life is returned to the paling body of an overdose survivor, it is just the first step in a long and painful process of recuperation. Jobs are often lost, children taken away. Loved ones keep their distance and survivors are left with the overwhelming stigma of their addiction. A recovering addict must enter the thicket of adversity. Without a proper support network of counseling and care, relapse becomes a looming given.
Working class communities across the country have been shaken to their core by the increasing strain and extremity of the opioid epidemic. Opioid-related deaths have taken the lead as the number one cause of death in Americans under 50. The statistics are in for 2016 with 64,000 deaths from opioid overdoses on record and 2017 set to see an even greater increase. Over the next decade, unless drastic measures are taken to upend the trend, over 500,000 more deaths could result from the crisis.
A close friend tells me that she has been forced to buy her addiction treatment medication from a dealer because her insurance won’t cover it.
Death tolls continue to rise at exorbitant rates in rural communities in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Utah, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where working-class individuals foster deadly addictions from painkillers prescribed for injuries and chronic pain. The underemployed, unemployed, working class and elderly are extremely vulnerable to opioid addiction due to their general lack of resources to combat it. With the budget for Medicaid and Medicare shrinking and a Republican-led House and Senate that can barely manage to fund the government from one week to the next, resources remain scarce.
Once individuals become addicted to opioid prescriptions their inability to continually renew and/or pay the cost of prescriptions or opioid addiction treatment drives them to purchase heroin and other substances on the street. A close friend tells me that she has been forced to buy her naltrexone (an opioid addiction treatment medication) from a dealer because her insurance won’t cover the treatment. Medicaid recipients can lose the insurance coverage they desperately need for the addiction they are fighting if they test positive for controlled substances, including marijuana.
Despite these ongoing developments, politicians continue to add to the ignorance and misinformation that surrounds the epidemic — explicitly using it for their own political gains. This was evident from Trump’s reference in his State of the Union Address to influxes of drugs from across the border. The President would like to make the health crisis an issue of border control and “criminal immigrants” yet, it is anything but. In reality, the crisis is one from within. Profiteering pharmaceutical giants are overloading the market with cheap opioids and negligent MDs are willing to prescribe them ad infinitum to vulnerable patients. It is no secret that ‘Big Pharma’ has functioned here as many drug cartels have in destabilized nations.
Despite Trump’s October declaration of the opioid epidemic as a ‘public health emergency,’ his administration has failed to take action against the pharmaceutical industry or the complicit doctors in its pocket. Former Democratic Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island — one of six people appointed to an opioid commission by the President last year — described it as a “charade” and a “sham.”
“The emergency declaration has accomplished little because there’s no funding behind it,” Kennedy told CNN. “You can’t expect to stem the tide of a public health crisis that is claiming over 64,000 lives per year without putting your money where your mouth is.”
This seems like an obvious conclusion, but we are living under a regime that pays lip service to the possibilities of an infrastructural overhaul, immigration reform and health care reform with no will to or belief in allocating funds and resources. Where Congress is failing, hope may spring on a local level.
A wave of over 200 lawsuits from states and municipalities have the potential to provide a legal framework for dealing with the opioid epidemic and garner the necessary monetary relief needed to prevent further deaths. New York City filed a lawsuit in January against leading pharmaceutical companies, seeking $500 million to combat the epidemic, which killed over 1,000 in the five boroughs in 2016, the latest year statistics are available. In Alabama this month, Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma LP, accusing the OxyContin maker of deceptive marketing practices that generated billions in sales for the company while spurring a public health emergency.
In a moonshot, U.S. District Judge Daniel Polster of Ohio has initiated talks between pharma executives, the Food and Drug and Drug Enforcement administrations and various states attorney generals that could lead to a nationwide plan of action. But Big Pharma has been resistant. “I haven’t gotten the least indication that they are willing to take responsibility,” New Hampshire assistant attorney general Jim Boffetti, who is participating in the talks, told Bloomberg. “We’re hoping the judge can change that attitude.”
Painfully apparent here is an evolving state of emergency created by a radically unfettered pharmaceutical market producing and distributing lethal-addictive-substances. Big Pharma’s deadly profiteering has become the status quo. Where lawmakers and regulators have failed, court-enforced payouts could lead to real action, being as they speak a language Big Pharma can understand: money.
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