Julie Havlak reports for the Carolina Journal that new laws and tougher federal enforcement turn pain patients toward more lethal, often illegal substitutes.

For Cathy, opioids are part of the blend of medications that keep her functioning. After she caught polio as a baby — just three years before the vaccine was invented — she suffered from fibromyalgia, she developed arthritis as a teenager, and her nerves started to die as a 40 year old.

“I am a chronic pain patient, I have been on pain pills for 30 years. It has allowed me to raise a child, be a good wife, and to retire gracefully with money of my own,” said Cathy, who didn’t want her last name used. “Without them, I would be a ward of the state. … I have never, never upped my dosage or abused the drug.”

A growing number of chronic pain patients say they are caught in the crosshairs of the war on drugs, where legislators’ good intentions to limit overprescribing have made the lives of actual chronic pain patients hellish.

“It’s insane,” Cathy said. “We are an infinitely easy target in the war on drugs.”

The STOP Act and the HOPE Act limited prescriptions and mandated the use of the prescription database N.C. Controlled Substances Reporting System.

“Smarter, safer prescribing is one tool among many that we’re deploying to combat the opioid crisis,” said Gov. Roy Cooper in a 2017 news release. “Setting initial limits on these powerful drugs can help reduce the number of people who become addicted to opioids and it can ultimately save lives.”

Law enforcement doesn’t track the number or type of patients a doctor treats, but the number of opioid pills prescribed. For doctors looking to cut down their pill counts or their paperwork, the easiest option is not to treat chronic pain patients, said Cato Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a surgeon.

Thomas Kline, a retired NC physician keeps a list of suicides that he believes were caused by forced tapering with chronic pain medication. So far, the list has 33 names ranging from middle-aged workers, to mothers, to wounded veterans.

“These people are no longer with us due to the policy of ‘you are better off without pain medicines,’” Kline wrote at the end of the list. “Not treating a person in pain is negligence. Abandoning people with painful disease to the streets, with no doctor, is negligence.”

Some say that the crackdown on legal prescriptions has driven patients to more deadly, street-drug alternatives.

“Lots of patients tell me [doctors] stopped their pain meds,” Forsyth County Emergency Service Captain Tara Tucker said. “We’ve actually seen older folks who have been on chronic pain medications for years that their doctors stopped giving them switch to heroin and overdosing.”

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