Last year, Ohio changed its rules for prescribing opioids, restricting amounts of, and circumstances under which, doctors can prescribe those narcotics. The new rules have an exemption for people who are in hospice type care for diseases like cancer. But many patients who suffer from chronic pain say the new rules are leaving them without pain relief, resulting in unintended consequences.
On a warm sunny day, Barbara Schwarz of Piqua stood outside the Ohio Statehouse with other chronic pain patients. Schwarz suffers from nerve damage and has been taking one half of a low dose opioid pill to take the edge off pain so she could work. But with the state’s new guidelines she says her doctor tells her he can no longer prescribe those opioids and can only prescribe certain drugs which she says affect her ability to do her job.
“The Lyrica, the Gavapantin…that does not help with nerve pain. It might take the edge off. It’s not a cure. It’s a band-aid and there’s no way I could function and work on that. With the two low dose opioids a day, I could function and do my job," Schwarz said.
Schwarz and other chronic pain patients protesting the new rules say some they know have resorted to dangerous illegal street drugs just to relieve the pain. And Judy Combs of Camden says a family member who suffered injuries while serving in the military just gave up the fight.
“I had a cousin that took his own life, he was a vet, that was not getting pain medicine. All they were doing was treating him with psychotropics which made him worse and he spiraled and it was not a pretty way to go," Combs said.
But Gov. John Kasich credits the new rules for helping fight the deadly opioid crisis. And he says there are good non-opiate options for chronic pain patients.
“We want to make sure, in the process of it, we look at other means in which your pain can be relieved. We want to make sure we are not turning you into an addict and we’ve got to monitor you. Those rules are fine," Kasich said.
Kasich says the rules were developed with input from doctors. Reggie Fields with the Ohio State Medical Association says the new rules have prompted many doctors to steer patients toward other treatment.
“The rules, the attention, the awareness has actually increased and really helped physicians become much better at being able to determine when using their discretion as to whether or not an opioid is appropriate," Fields said.
But some of the chronic pain patients say they want to go back to low dose opioids that worked for them in the first place. John Schwarz, Barbara’s husband, who suffers from debilitating back pain, says this new rule has made his doctor afraid to prescribe what he thinks works best.
“He (the doctor) says they’ve tightened the screws down on everything. He says I cannot do this. I’m afraid they are going to pull my license," Schwarz said.
The latest numbers from the state show prescription opioid deaths are at an eight-year low. But the number of unintentional drug deaths rose for the eighth years in a row last year - driven by the deadly opioid fentanyl, which is being mixed with other drugs. A record 4,854 Ohioans died from fatal drug overdoses in 2017. And that’s a 20 percent increase over 2016.