An opioid epidemic is sweeping the nation, but a local pain sufferer says a lack of prescription medication availability is resulting in a decreased quality of life and even an increase in suicide.
“People are getting their drugs off the street or they’re committing suicide because they can’t deal with the pain,” said Melissa Lerner of Nappanee, a chronic pain sufferer and ambassador for the Indiana chapter of American Pain and Disability Foundation.
To combat the problem, the American Pain and Disability Foundation is hosting a series of rallies, including one Wednesday in Indianapolis. The group has hosted rallies for two years now with little success, Lerner said, a troubling problem for pain sufferers.
“We are urging anyone who cannot make it to the Indianapolis rally to go to their local CVS, their local Walgreens, their doctor’s office, and hold up signs encouraging people to talk to their congressmen,” Lerner said.
For chronic pain sufferers, rallying can be difficult for many reasons, but Lerner and others at the foundation think it might be the only chance they’ve got.
“When you’re in this kind of condition, you’re not able to stand for two hours because you’re hurting,” Lerner said. “One out of 10 people suffer from chronic pain, so if you don’t have chronic pain, you know someone who does. You can support those people by coming down to these rallies.”
Lerner said that she’s been told by one lawmaker that nothing is going to change for chronic pain sufferers and their medical providers until “we show numbers.”
The Indiana chapter of the American Pain and Disability Foundation has been active for a little over a month, seeking donations to help others gain transportation to rallies and collecting money for out-of-pocket prescription costs.
Difficulties for chronic pain patients began as the opioid epidemic rose. In 2016, in an effort to prevent addiction, the Centers for Disease Control began cracking down on physicians.
“When I first heard about it I thought they were just talking about the drug users,” Lerner said. “I’d been on the medicine for 10 years and never abused it. I thought it would never happen to me. I did not think this was my problem.”
As a 49-year-old woman who uses a walker to get around, and having a mother-in-law in a similar pain situation, Lerner said she never expected the new guidelines to affect her life. She holds a job, attends church and views herself as a good person.
Despite that, as a user of pain medication, she’s found herself at the forefront of the opioid epidemic. Living in Nappanee, Lerner travels nearly three hours one way each month to see her pain specialist, because none are available nearby, and he will take only one pain patient per month.
Her former physician quit prescribing entirely, which left a hole in pain management in this area for her and many other pain sufferers, she said.
Lerner said the lack of doctors willing to prescribe pain medication forces sufferers to make hard decisions, but doctors are afraid to take action.
“Their license is on the line and it’s their livelihood,” Lerner said. “They want the DEA out of their office, too. At our rally, we have a lot of doctors that want to treat their patients and can’t. Unfortunately a lot of the patients don’t understand and view the doctor or pharmacist as the bad guy, but their hands are tied as to what they can do.”
Mark Ibsen of Helena, Montana, said he has experienced firsthand the difficulties surrounding the new CDC guidelines for pain medication administration.
“As an ER doctor, I had all kinds of drugs available to me so I never thought of it as a scarcity,” Ibsen said. “There was no limit to the amount of drugs I could give and I treated pain vigorously when it came to acute pain. I talked to my patients and I listened to them and they told me their horrible surgeries.”
After 30 years in the ER, he began working in urgent care.
“I had one lady who came to me and said she’d had 10 surgeries and her doctor said there’s nothing left to treat, I can’t help you anymore,” he recalled. “We saw about 1,000 patients a month and in 2012, we started seeing the scenario, ‘My doctor retired. The younger doctor won’t refill my prescription and I’m going to be in withdrawal tomorrow.’”
Ibsen said he has treated thousands of pain patients. His problems started, he said, after an employee accused his patients of being addicts and losers, and he fired her.
“She reported me to the board for overprescribing,” he said.
Investigation into Ibsen’s work began in 2013 and his medical license was suspended in 2016.
“It was a really dark time,” he said.
After Ibsen filed an appeal, a judge overturned the ruling and Ibsen’s license was reinstated in 2018.
“You can’t punish patients and care for them,” he said. “You can’t be effective as both. Law enforcement is smack dab in the middle of the exam room now. I can’t do what’s best for my patients because I’ll lose my license or go to prison.”
He still wanted to help, but Ibsen isn’t willing to go back to pain management. He’s prescribing cannabis, which was legalized for medicinal use in Montana.
“I don’t begrudge the patients,” he said. “I bedruge my colleagues for letting fear get the better of them.”
Ibsen said he feels a responsibility to represent the vulnerable.
“This whole idea that pain patients will become addicted is false,” Ibsen said. “It doesn’t take that much to sort out the addicts. It’s not like I put a sign out that said, ‘Get your oxycodone here.’ Other (doctors) just stopped and I felt like that was the wrong thing to do.”
On Wednesday, nationwide pain sufferers and advocates for them will meet at various locations to rally for a reversal of the 2016 CDC guidelines, which they say limits their accessibility to pain medication. The guidelines have also put a strain on pharmacists, who can’t keep enough pain medication on site to regularly fill pain prescriptions, advocates say.
The Indianapolis Don’t Punish Pain rally will be held at the Indiana State Capitol, 27 N. Capitol Ave., from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16. There will also be rallies in Evansville in Indiana, and Coloma and Lansing in Michigan. More information is available at https://dontpunishpainrally.com.