In times of partisan vitriol and gridlock, it’s rare to see Congress rally together to try and address a complicated public health problem. But that’s exactly what they did at a hearing on opioid use among seniors last week. And we were thrilled to be there.
The hearing was one of a series on the use and abuse of opioids (think Vicodin, OxyContin or Percocet), especially by older people, in the United States.
While the senators hear regularly from their constituents’ about the very real opioid and heroin abuse in their states, we learned they are also aware that the moves they make to solve one problem need to be balanced so they do not create another problem for chronic pain sufferers.
It was reassuring to see how thoughtfully the Senators approached this issue. There are some aggressive proposals that would severely restrict access to chronic pain suffers. Some folks have even called for cutting off opioids to nearly everyone except cancer patients.
But senators and witnesses at the hearing recognized the need for a balanced approach to protect those who are addicted and their families, unassuming patients who may become addicted, and those who are not addicted but need the drugs to alleviate a lifetime of suffering from chronic pain caused by horrific accidents or disease.
In the words of Senator Robert P. Casey Jr., (D-PA), “The difficulty here is making sure that we take the right steps [to manage the opioid crisis], but don’t take away the opportunity to get pain relief.”
Among the witnesses at the hearing was Sean Mackey, M.D., Ph.D., and Chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University. Dr. Mackey is also a Mayday Pain & Society Fellow, a graduate of a program that supports experts in advocating for improvements in pain management and care. So he knows a thing or two about pain relief, and he appreciated the Senate’s balanced approach.
Here’s what he had to say:
“The magnitude of pain in the United States is astonishing. More than 100 million Americans have chronic pain, with a total cost to our country exceeding half a trillion dollars per year. This is higher than the costs of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes combined. And that number is increasing with our aging population.”
Sounds like a big problem. So how do we fix it?
According to Dr. Mackey, a solution is imminent. The National Pain Strategy (NPS)—an action plan from Health & Human Services that was co-written by Dr. Mackey and 80 other experts—is expected to be released this year. Here’s some of what it recommends:
- Increase and improve the quality of pain research
- Increase access to high quality pain care
- Incentivize a medical team care approach for pain
- Increase training for all physicians and nurses, woefully undereducated about pain
- Educate the public on the seriousness of pain and on safe medication use
Mackey said in his testimony, “Successful implementation of these strategic objectives will create the cultural transformation in pain prevention, care, and education that is desperately needed by the American public.”
And he believes it is a key component for long-term success to address the country’s opioid addiction problem as well.
We’ll be watching to see if the NPS can garner widespread support when it’s released. If last week’s hearing is any sign, we have reason to be optimistic.
Dr. Mackey and the millions of pain patients and medical experts stand ready to help advocate for and implement the NPS recommendations that will change the way we care for pain, as well as keep people safe from misuse.