The opioid epidemic is surging as the pandemic drags on. We have to act | Opinion


Mother who lost son pleads with doctors to reduce opioid prescriptions

More than 75,000 of our fellow Americans died of an opioid overdose in the year that ended in April, according to the National Center of Health Statistics. This new record shows that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased stress caused by isolation and financial pressures and more difficulty getting treatment, has resulted to an acceleration of the opioid epidemic, leading to more new cases of Opioid Use Disorder and to a stepped-up number of relapses. The devastating consequences of this expansion to our families, friends, neighbors and the American community are being driven home every day in ruined lives and avoidable deaths.

While a number of good steps have been taken to curb the opioid epidemic, our national response simply fails to match the scale of the problem. We need to re-double our efforts on all fronts, including making evidence-based treatment more widely available.  But treatment no matter how well it is done, still leaves a high rate of relapse. It is more important than ever to prevent dependence and addiction at its main source: the overprescribing of opioid-based pain relievers.

One can become dependent on opioid-based pain relievers in as little as 5 days and there are still more than 150 million prescriptions handed-out for these highly addictive drugs annually. Prescription opioids have the same underlying ingredient as dangerous recreational drugs, and many people who become addicted to prescription opioids end up graduating to what are referred to as “black market opioids,” such as heroin and fentanyl.

I know first-hand the damage prescription opioid pain relievers given to patients without the appropriate warnings and safeguards can cause. My son, Steven, became dependent on opioid-based pain relievers after they were prescribed to treat a sports injury. Had I just been told about the addictive qualities of the medicines Steven was prescribed, I would have known to look for alternatives, or been able to identify the signs and symptoms of abuse and get him help. A national survey done by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation confirms what I have learned from talking with other parents, who, like me, have lost a child to this epidemic: that six in 10 doctors prescribe opioid painkillers without telling patients that they can be addictive.

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Elaine Pozycki - Chair of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, speaks about the opioid epidemic at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck on Wednesday February 13, 2019. Pozycki's son passed away due to  opioids.

To ensure that more families don’t have to experience the pain my family, and so many others, have had to endure, we’ve developed and are working to advance common-sense legislation, requiring a conversation about the risks of dependency and where appropriate, the use of a non-opioid pain relief alternative before an opioid-based pain reliever is prescribed, Versions of this Patient Opioid Notification Law have now passed in 18 states.Create Account

New Jersey was the first state to pass it and we know it is working. A Brandeis University Study of the law’s impact in New Jersey, the first state to implement the law, found that the number of patients prescribed opioids for acute pain significantly decreased after the law went into effect. In the month after the law was implemented, nearly 5,000 fewer patients were started on opioids. There was also a fourfold increase in the percentage of doctors warning patients of the risks of addiction. Prior to enactment, only 18% of the participants warned patients about the risk of opioid addiction when prescribing opioids. After enactment, 95% routinely warned patients about the risk of addiction.

While there is still much more to do in New Jersey, it was one of only 3 states in the nation to not experience overdose increases in the most recently measured year-period. Requiring these timely conversations is a significant contributing factor to New Jersey having better outcomes than most of the rest of the nation.

Now, we have the opportunity to accelerate bringing this lifesaving information to the rest of the nation.

The bi-partisan Opioid Patients’ Right to Know Act — H-1185 — introduced in Congress by Rep. David Trone, D-Maryland, along with Rep. Guy Reschenthaler R-Pennsylvania, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-New Mexico, and David McKinley, R-West Virginia, provides incentives for states to pass a law requiring a conversation between prescriber and patient to warn about addiction risks and discuss non-opioid pain relief alternatives. States that do so become eligible for federal grant-funding for safe prescribing. The states, like New Jersey, that have already done so immediately qualify for funding to educate medical practitioners and the public at large about effective non-opioid pain relief treatments.

The legislation is parked in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Frank Pallone. I urge Congressman Pallone to take action to pass the Opioid Patients’ Right to Know Act out of his committee, so it receives the floor vote it deserves — and to do so expeditiously.

Every American has the right to be warned about the highly addictive qualities of opioids — and that there are effective non-opioid pain relief alternatives-and to receive this warning at the time it is most needed — right before an opioid is prescribed.  

The Opioid Patients' Right to Know Act will help us achieve this goal and curb the opioid epidemic. Congressman Pallone has a decisive role to play.

Elaine Pozycki

Elaine Pozycki is the founder of Prevent Opioid Abuse, a national organization working to educate patients and parents about the risks of opioid-based pain relievers and the availability of non-opioid alternatives, and the co-chair of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.