Pain Clinic Crackdown Leaves Thousands of Opioid Patients Reeling In Washington

By Victoria Kim 03/02/17

Last July, eight Seattle Pain Centers were shutdown, leaving 8,000 opioid dependent patients without help.

Person holding a handful of pills.

Washingtonians living with chronic pain feel slighted by the state’s heavy crackdown on opioid prescribing—which has left shuttered pain clinics and physicians suspended for over-prescribing in its wake. Medical professionals say patients have a right to be angry.

“They have a reason to be upset because frankly they were caught up in a medical experiment that high-dose opiates were the way to go,” said Dr. David Tauben, chief of pain medicine at the University of Washington. “It could take years to get these folks’ (doses) down because their bodies have been so transformed by exposures that create changes in the brain, spinal cord and elsewhere.”

Some say the state went too far when it shut down Seattle Pain Centers (SPC) in July 2016, leaving 8,000 patients dependent on opioid pain medication suddenly cut off. The state accused SPC of bad practices which may have led to at least 18 patient deaths since 2010, according to the Seattle Times.

The closure of SPC’s eight clinics throughout Washington was “unprecedented” and a “huge surprise to the entire system,” according to Dr. Ray Hsiao, president of the Washington State Medical Association. Following SPC’s closure, Hsiao wrote a blog post encouraging primary care physicians to offer care to stranded chronic pain patients.

“No matter your opinion on the state’s handling of this situation, one thing is clear: thousands of patients in our communities have been left in a lurch, suddenly and unexpectedly cut off from appropriate treatment for their pain, or opioid medication management,” wrote Hsiao.

The issue took a tragic turn in September, when former SPC patient Denny Peck killed himself, leaving a note that read, “Can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t do anything. And all the whitecoats don’t care at all.”

Peck was dependent on opioid painkillers to manage debilitating pain from a commercial fishing accident nearly three decades ago. According to the Seattle Times, two days before his death, Peck expressed to a 911 dispatcher his frustration with being cut off from his medication. 

It seems that fears of being busted for over-prescribing has made doctors more hesitant to prescribe opioids. After Peck’s suicide, the Washington Health Department issued a memo in October in an attempt to clarify the rules for opioid prescribing.

“The pain rules are not intended to force practitioners who are not pain management specialists away from treating chronic non-cancer pain patients,” read the memo. It went on to state that there is no explicit upper limit for opioid prescribing, but that 120 mg is the recommended threshold “because extended treatment above this dose significantly increases morbidity and mortality.”

Like Dr. Hsiao, the state health department also encouraged physicians to accept more chronic pain patients into their practice: “While the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, we must not forget the crisis that is the patient without relief from debilitating pain or functional improvement.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr