By: Mark Roman

Shortly before the holiday season, President Obama traveled to West Virginia to discuss this country’s pain pill problem. While announcing a new federal program to fight heroin and prescription drug abuse, he grimly noted that more Americans now die from drug overdoses than car accidents. The choice of West Virginia was no accident: it now has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country.

The pain pill problem is nothing new to Floridians. A few years ago, Florida cracked down on what state officials called “pill mills.” Florida had a reputation at the time for being a place where people could go to get narcotics quickly and easily. The crackdown has been successful in some respects, but it appears the problem has just moved to other states.

Insurance companies and others defending personal injury cases often portray injured people as “pill heads” or “drug seekers.” They argue that these people are just faking or exaggerating their injuries to get more narcotics.

In reality, the situation is much more complicated. As lawyers for injured people, we have seen cases where initially reasonable prescriptions for pain medicine have sent people into a spiral of addiction. The people who end up being hooked are usually not criminals or degenerates. Most are normal people who didn’t realize they could become addicted to drugs a doctor legally prescribed. Coming to grips with an accidental addiction problem is horrifying and embarrassing for them.

Physicians also face real dilemmas in dealing with narcotic pain medication. No one doubts that there are times when they should be prescribed, such as immediately after a painful injury or surgery. But deciding how long to prescribe those types of drugs, and when to stop or taper them off, can be tricky for even the most dedicated medical professional. Compassionate doctors struggle to balance pain relief for suffering patients with the risks of getting them hooked.

Further complicating things, not all patients go through bouts of pain and then recover. Many have diseases, conditions, or injuries which cause them constant misery. Sometimes conservative treatment or surgery fails to help, and a person is left with constant pain.

How best to treat these types of chronic pain patients is the subject of great debate in the medical community. For many of them, narcotic pain medications may be the only legally available ones which provide genuine relief. A physician can cut off a patient’s medication because of addiction concerns, but that can condemn them to suffering which makes every day a brutal ordeal. There is also the risk that the patient will turn to illegal drugs and “self medicate.” That is far more dangerous and counterproductive than taking legal drugs under a physician’s care.

Lawmakers in both parties should realize that this is a complex problem. Nonetheless, there are a few appropriate general observations to make. First, those dependent on prescribed pain medication should not simply be dismissed as drug addicts. In most cases, they should have a chance to get treatment rather than being pushed into the criminal justice system. Second, lawmakers should recognize that physicians who prescribe narcotics to chronic pain patients may have legitimate reasons for doing so. Trying to reduce intractable pain does not make a well-meaning doctor into a pill pusher.

There are few simple answers in the pain pill debate. However, it’s good that a national conversation about the issue has begun.

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