Chronic Pain Patients Feel The Effects Of Arizona Opioid Legislation

By Maggie Ethridge 07/11/18

"They told me because of the new law they had to cut me back. It just hurts, I don't want to walk, I don't want to... pretty much don't want to do anything,” said one pain patient.

Doctor examining female patient with elbow pain in hospital

New bipartisan legislation curbing the pharmaceutical use of opioids in Arizona has been put into action. In January, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act, calling it “vital to combat an epidemic felt statewide and across the nation,” according to Reuters.

However, some chronic pain patients in Arizona are already feeling harmful effects as the law is put into place. NPR reported that although the act was not written around the issues of chronic pain patients, it negatively impacts them, as doctors who are worried about legal trouble curb their patients' access to the pain-relieving drugs.

Governor Ducey's administration had stated that the law would "maintain access for chronic pain sufferers and others who rely on these drugs."

This is mostly true: restrictions are written to apply to new patients only. Some were exempted, such as cancer and trauma patients, and patients in end-of-life care.

However, in practice, some Arizona doctors are pulling back hard on prescribing opioids for all of their patients.

Dr. Julian Grove, president of the Arizona Pain Society and contributor to the act told NPR that, "A lot of practitioners are reducing opioid medications, not from a clinical perspective, but more from a legal and regulatory perspective for fear of investigation. No practitioner wants to be the highest prescriber."

Shannon Hubbard, Arizona resident and chronic pain sufferer (she has a condition called complex regional pain syndrome) had her opioid pain relievers reduced by 10 mg in April. "They told me because of the new Arizona law they had to cut me back," she told NPR, saying that her pain was now terrible. "It just hurts, I don't want to walk, I don't want to... pretty much don't want to do anything.”

The legislation created regulations around opioid use, citing that 75% of those addicted to heroin began their use with an opioid prescription. The act includes a limited initial opioid prescription of five days, and for certain extremely addictive painkillers, set a maximum 30-day prescription.

The law includes $10 million to be spent treating people with opioid addiction who are not insured and ineligible for Medicaid. The "Good Samaritan" provision allows immunity for those reporting an overdose.

Dr. Cara Christ, head of Arizona’s Department of Health Services and contributor to the state’s opioid response laws, told NPR, "The intent was never to stop prescribers from utilizing opioids. It's really meant to prevent a future generation from developing opioid use disorder, while not impacting current chronic pain patients.”

Still, Shannon Hubbard is living with the effects of the law, and not the intentions.

"What they are doing is not working,” she told NPR. “They are having no effect on the guy who is on the street shooting heroin and is really in danger of overdosing. Instead they are hurting people that are actually helped by the drugs."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.