NATIONAL VIEW: The other victims of the opioid crisisTHE POINT: The system shouldn’t be punishing those who need the medications by dismissing them as addicts.

The scale of the opioid crisis is undeniable. More than 70,000 Americans died in 2017 because of drug overdoses.
The narrative of the problem is well-established, too. Overzealous drug companies seeking profits pushed an obscene amount of pills into rural areas while some doctors played fast and loose with their own ethical obligations and regulatory agencies didn’t do their job. Pill mills sprouted up, then, eventually, were stamped out. Addicts turned to heroin and fentanyl after they couldn’t find or afford pills.
It’s a tidy story that, overall, paints a somewhat accurate portrait of the problem. Like any broad narrative, though, there are untidy details that fall through the cracks.
There are many unintended victims of the opioid crisis, but one group often overlooked includes those who took the medicine as prescribed, because they actually needed it and still do.
There is a man from Logan County who writes into the Gazette-Mail frequently, and occasionally calls. He’s a disabled coal miner, whose torso and legs were crushed in an industrial accident nearly 30 years ago. As he has aged and his body has deteriorated, new pain pills like oxycodone and hydrocodone that hit the market in the late 1990s were what he needed to stay functional.
Some of the doctors he used to see have been shut down because they were engaging in illegal activity. Others stopped prescribing opioids, as state and federal regulations tightened and the drugs themselves developed a stigma.
This man … has had to deal with a stigma of his own. He says most of the people he talks to, from personnel in a doctor’s office to government officials he looks to for help, view him as an addict looking to obtain pills for an illegitimate purpose. Most everyone has blown him off, he says, and he’s trying to start a federal court action to take on state law just to get the medications he needs to relieve the agony he suffers. He’s, more than once, offered to come into the newsroom to show an editor or reporter his physical condition, even though the trip would be a great hardship for him.
Unfortunately, prescription painkillers, although prescribed at a much-reduced rate these days, are still killing people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 people die every day from an overdose of a prescription opioid. Of the 70,000 who died in opioid overdoses in 2017, more than 17,000 were from prescription pills, the highest amount over any other drug.
Pill mills are, for the most part, gone. Heroin and fentanyl are now viewed as the major culprits in overdose deaths. But the first problem was never completely solved. The pills are still there, they’re still causing deaths, and the medical community still struggles with how to get those medications to people who actually need them in an appropriate dose and keep them away from addicts.
There are still going to be people who need these prescription opioids, though. That also means there will still be people who try to obtain them for illegitimate use. But the system shouldn’t be punishing those who need the medications by dismissing them as addicts. Both groups need to be viewed compassionately as the state, as laid out by Gov. Jim Justice, oversees coordination of services to get everyone the help they need.