By Nicole Hemmenway, Guest Columnist
While the issue of pain medication and addiction has been a hot topic in the media and government for quite some time, a TV commercial shown during the Super Bowl seemed to add more fuel to the fire.
Initially, I thought these conversations would be beneficial to those of us – like myself – who deal with pain. I believed that in 2016 we had come a far way from judging people with disabilities, and that the patient voice would finally be heard for positive, proactive, and bipartisan change to occur.
I was wrong. Sadly, the focus has not been on the patient. Instead, media coverage (and a White House press conference) has chosen to only address the high rate of opioid overdose.
There is scrutiny from the public, those running our nation and the media that such an ad, designed by multiple patient advocacy groups to raise awareness about a serious issue (opioid induced constipation), is seen as a way to further stem the opioid epidemic. The ad became an excuse for politicians and high-profile individuals to push an agenda that only stigmatizes the pain patient more. To my dismay, the patient voice wasn’t only lost in the rhetoric, it was obsolete.
I am angry. Very angry. We have two very serious problems happening in America right now: addiction and the pandemic of pain. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine reported that over 100 million Americans live with some type of pain brought on from a chronic condition, illness or injury. This is a staggering number that will only grow higher, and not enough is being done to help these Americans.
My issue is that it appears most people only want to state how terrible pain medications are, and how they are the reason we have such a high addiction and overdose rate. The only discussion to “fix” the crisis is to limit access to treatment. Repeatedly, I hear the answer is to deny legitimate people living with pain access to the treatments their providers deem beneficial for them. That is not a solution. This doesn’t solve or even curtail the problem. In my mind, I see it as a cop-out; a loosely fit Band-Aid if you will.
Let me be clear. I am not pro-drugs. In fact, the high doses of medications I was prescribed nearly took my life a decade ago. Thankfully, I was able to try countless treatment options and found my answer in a non-invasive electrical stimulation device, as well as diet change, light therapy, acupuncture, upper cervical care and exercise.
I live in the San Francisco Bay area. Because of where I reside, I have access to every possible complementary therapy. I can try active release technique, reiki, healing touch and hot mineral springs. There are wonderful interdisciplinary programs nearby. Anything that may help me move past my pain is available. Yet the downside is that nearly none of these treatments are covered by insurance.
So while I have access to them – unlike rural areas, where finding a complementary practitioner is impossible – I also have to pay out-of-pocket. And they are not cheap!
The cost of my health insurance – like millions of others who need it – is obscene. For my family, our monthly premium is $827.34 (my husband’s employer contributes an additional $225). Our deductible is $9,000, with an out-of-pocket max of $13,000 for the year. This is the reality for most Americans. With that, how is it feasible for Americans living with pain to afford additional treatments? It is not.
The actual problem is not being addressed, and I would love to be given the opportunity to talk with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Senator Ron Wyden or Dr. Andrew Kolodny about the real issue. I believe most people taking pain medications want to lower their dose or even not need them. But there has to be other treatment options in place to help control the pain. What are we offering now? Nothing, really.
That is the problem, and this is where I hoped the discussion surrounding the Super Bowl, pain care in America and addiction would have went this past week. Unfortunately, it did not. As a society, we keep missing opportunities to really advance the issue of healthcare and pain care. There is a serious pandemic called chronic pain that is widely misunderstood and inadequately treated.
Right now, the public persona sees those with pain as “junkies” (thanks Bill Maher for adding to the misperception). I take huge offense to that. We are not junkies or addicts. We are people following legitimate treatments our providers believe will help us. And even with that, many cannot receive the medications or care they need and deserve.
This, in my mind, is injustice. It is time to stop shaming a quarter of our population for having pain. They are just trying to find answers so they can return to a better quality of life.
So I leave you all with these questions to ask yourselves. When will the voices of those with pain be considered a priority to America? How can we make sure those with pain have access to ALL forms of care? What can we do to begin working together so we find a balanced approach to pain management?
There will be a solution, as soon as we start asking the right questions. To start, America needs to care for those of us with invisible illnesses. Our voices must be part of the discussion, which sadly, they have not been. Let us do our part to change this now.
Nicole Hemmenway is vice-president of U.S. Pain Foundation, a non-profit patient advocacy group. Nicole is also the author of No, It Is NOT In My Head: The Journey of a Chronic Pain Survivor from Wheelchair to Marathon.
Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to: editor@PainNewsNetwork.org.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.