Nearly 20 years ago, my addiction to opioid pain medications nearly destroyed my family and took my life. What started out as a work-related back injury turned into years of drug seeking and a downward spiral that would lead me to heroin addiction.
Eventually, during a moment of clarity, I realized that I did not want my children to be motherless. I reached out for help. With the aid of 12-step mutual aid groups and medication-assisted treatment available through an outpatient treatment program, I got my life back on track. Today I give back to the community through my work at a nonprofit homeless shelter. We incorporate a peer-run recovery program for people with substance-use disorders. We offer hope and support to families torn apart by this opioid epidemic.
Recently, the General Assembly has taken steps to intervene in the cycle of injury, pills and heroin where myself and so many members of our community are struggling. Earlier this month it introduced a bill called the STOP Act to cut back on the over-prescription of addictive medications. The STOP Act would require medical providers and pharmacists to report the prescriptions they give out in a statewide database, which can be checked by other medical providers so that they make informed prescribing decisions. It would also place limits on the initial number of controlled substances that can be prescribed for acute pain. Additionally, it would encourage providers to move toward electronic prescribing to reduce forgery from stolen paper prescription pads.
There is some concern about the STOP Act and how it would affect people’s ability to access the medications they need, but a careful review of the bill shows that many of these concerns stem from misinformation about the bill and what it does. In particular there are a few things it is important to note that the STOP Act does NOT do.
It does not affect prescribing for cancer patients, palliative care patients, hospice patients or anyone with chronic pain. It does not apply to all medications, only schedule two and three drugs, which are classified by the DEA as the strongest and most likely to be abused legal medications. It does not prevent prescribers from prescribing medication to anyone; the STOP Act merely requires prescribers to check a database for potential “doctor shoppers,” or people who are seeking medical prescriptions from multiple sources. It also places limits on initial prescriptions for acute pain only, meaning that physicians could still prescribe more after the initial prescription if necessary.
Another concern about the STOP Act is that by reducing the supply of unnecessary or unused prescriptions, some people who are already addicted to pain pills may seek alternatives, such as heroin and synthetic opioids they can buy online. This is a valid concern and one the General Assembly would do well to address. It is not enough to merely prevent new addictions from forming. We also need to offer options to those who are already addicted.
As a community we need to urge the General Assembly to allocate sufficient funds toward treatment and recovery resources. We need funding for law enforcement and people impacted by drug use to purchase naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdose and saves lives. We also need to adequately fund our drug take-back programs to collect used prescriptions pills from people’s homes.
Passing the STOP Act, and allocating sufficient funding for treatment, naloxone, and drug take-back programs would be a step in the right direction toward ending this epidemic, though there is much work left to be done. We are all touched by opioids, whether in our families, circles of friends, co-workers, or people we know. People all around us struggle with addiction, and shame and stigma prevent many from seeking help. It will take entire communities to come together to seek solutions. Let’s start by urging our lawmakers to pass the STOP Act, but let’s not stop there.
Kat Thomas of Raleigh just celebrated 16 years of employment with Healing Transitions, formerly The Healing Place of Wake County, where she is the health services coordinator.