Chronic Pain Sufferers Beg the DEA to Reconsider Prescription Opioid Cuts

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has proposed reducing the manufacturing of prescription opioids for the fourth year in a row, but chronic pain patients are begging the agency to reconsider.

The proposal aims to reduce the amount of fentanyl production by 31 percent, hydrocodone by 19 percent, hydromorphone by 25 percent, oxycodone by nine percent and oxymorphone by 55 percent, according to the DEA. Altogether, the cuts would constitute a 53 percent decrease in legal opioid production since 2016.

The DEA has been criticized for allowing drug makers to ramp up opioid production between 2003 and 2013, leading to a sharp increase in overdose deaths. More than 140,000 people died from overdoses in that period, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. In an attempt to change course, the DEA has proposed cutting opioid manufacturing. Victims of chronic pain, however, claim the agency is taking away the medication they need to live productive lives.

Painkiller Prescription Sculture in Washington, D.C.
Pill Man, a skeleton made from Frank Huntley's oxycontin and methadone prescription bottles, is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House August 30, 2019, in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Cathy Thomas said she's about to have her 38th surgery related to pain management after being forced off the prescription opioids that worked for 20 years.

"I ask you this, if insulin all of a sudden became an abusable drug would you cut production of it?" Thomas wrote in public comments to the proposed rules last month. "I beg for mercy. I pray for an answer. Until politics are taken out of my doctor's office there is no hope and no end in sight to this madness."

Vin LoPresti, a stroke survivor, wrote that he took prescription opioids until 2017, when he said federal regulations made the drugs too difficult to obtain. Since then, medical cannabis helped, but it's become less effective, and more expensive, the more his condition deteriorates.

"Currently, I spend most of my time in my home and home city because everything else is too demanding. Meanwhile, I spend far too much money on Cannabis to control my pain," LoPresti wrote. "In other words, my quality of life has gone seriously downhill."

Terri Simpson said she used to work in construction, operating heavy machinery and working on homes and roads. Now, Simpson said she can't get out of bed and doesn't understand why patients are being held accountable for other people's addictions.

"I'm commenting on this because I'm tired of living in my bed!" Simpson said, who suffers from various forms of arthritis. "How is this fair to people?" she wrote later in the post.

Nancy, who declined to provide a last name to the agency, said the CDC's "forced taper" of prescription painkillers took away her mobility.

"Chronic pain is not a crime," Nancy wrote. "I've lived with an incurable chronic pain condition for 17 years. I did not ask to live like this. I have tried SO MANY modes of treatment, only to have them fail me."

"The death due to opiates are not coming from responsible chronic pain patients like myself," she said.

The mission of the DEA is to enforce laws and regulations related to "controlled substances," which include illegal drugs like heroin as well as legal, if closely monitored drugs such as prescription opioids. They place quotas on how many opioids drugmakers can bring to market, hoping, in part, to cull any diversion of legally manufactured pharmaceutical drugs into illegal markets.

Controlled pharmaceuticals account for 30 percent of all reported deaths and injuries associated with drug abuse, according to the DEA — but its regulations can cause shortages in the drugs' availability to patients as well as reduced prescriptions overall.

At the same time, it's not just the DEA's policies that have led to less availability of the drugs. The Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued strict guidelines for opioid prescribing in 2016 that even the authors say have been too liberally implemented.

On Thursday, The Trump administration told doctors to use more caution when tapering chronic pain patients off prescription opioids. The measure was prompted by reports that many have been cutting off prescriptions too quickly or even turning patients away, according to The New York Times.