• Backlash from opioid epidemic puts health of chronic pain sufferers at risk

    By: Amy Clancy

    Updated:

    Just this week, Purdue Pharma announced it will stop promoting opioids to doctors.

    Washington State lawmakers in Olympia are debating a law that could dictate how many painkillers can be prescribed a patient each week. Click here to read more. 

    But some chronic pain sufferers believe the current backlash against opioids is negatively affecting their health.

    Three of them recently spoke with KIRO 7.

    Vina Winters, 67, of Sequim, currently takes fentanyl and morphine to treat her chronic pain.

    Melissa Macias, 45 of Port Angeles, is prescribed methadone.

    Rob Malone 65, of Port Angeles, takes 120 milligrams of morphine sulfate a day.

    The Vietnam veteran told KIRO 7 he became chronically injured after three military tours, multiple car accidents and surgeries.  

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    For decades, Malone has taken prescribed opiates for pain and describes himself as an “addict” because he expects to take painkillers for the rest of his life.

    “I’m representative of addicts in my age group, more than you know,” Malone said. “There are people out there, folks that are paying everybody’s taxes and have done everything well, who are operating under the stigma of this, and it’s not pretty.”

    Malone, Macias and Winter all claim there's a stigma attached to chronic pain sufferers who are prescribed opiates, because of the nation's growing problem of opioid addiction.

    “I knew there was discrimination against patients on pain meds, but experiencing it firsthand was unbelievable,” Winters said.

    Winters spent decades caring for cancer patients as a registered nurse.  After routine stomach surgery in 2009, she contracted a painful and still-undiagnosed ailment that causes her extremities to turn purple.

    “At that point they said, ‘You know, we really don’t know what happened, what the cause is. We have not seen this before and really, all we can tell you to do is seek pain management,’” Winters said she was told by multiple medical professionals.

    “I thought, 'You know, I don’t know if I can really do this' meaning that I might commit suicide. I was that desperate,” she said. 

    Winters said she struggled to find a doctor who would even treat her, much less prescribe opiates. One doctor “began to get nervous and just said, ‘Well, I don’t think I can be prescribing these medications.’”

    “These days, people are very judgmental,” Winters told KIRO 7.  “They think that all people who need medication for chronic pain are drug addicts.”

    Winters, Malone and Macias are all now being treated by Dr. J. Kimber Rotchford, of Port Townsend who said the opioid backlash has a huge impact on chronic pain patients.  

    “They fear talking about things openly with their providers, and understandably so, because they’ve been conditioned to be careful about what they say and how they say it,”  Rotchford said, adding that, if patients aren’t able to be honest with their medical providers, it’s very difficult to find the proper medications and treatments.

    “I’ve had experiences with other medical doctors refusing to be my general practitioner because they consider me to be a high-risk patient,”  Macias told KIRO 7.  

    “It’s like I’ve got this little dark cloud with lightening coming out of my head: ‘You’re pain management’.”

    Macias suffered a back injury at the age of 11 and has been in chronic pain ever since.  

    The methadone she now takes daily controls her pain “at a tolerable level so that I can continue on with my life,” she said.

    “I think that what most people need to know is that it’s no different than any other medical ailment that is treated by a prescription from a doctor,” Macias said.

    “The name ‘opioid’ has a bad connotation,” Malone said.  “I look at it as a lifesaver. They look at it as a life-taker.”

    Rotchford believes prejudice against prescribed opiates is contributing to the nation's opioid crisis because patients who aren't prescribed the medications they need often turn to illegal painkillers, such as heroin,  to escape chronic pain.

    “We have a major problem with access to effective medical care,” Rotchford told KIRO 7, because doctors often fear “what could happen to their license.”

    “Pain is not good. It kills people, OK?  You want to take their opiates away? Fine. You want to avoid these conflicts, but you’d better treat their pain,” Rotchford said, “because it’s serious.”

    Rotchford’s pain management practice has been the focus of controversy in the past.  

    On Dec. 21, 2010, federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration searched his Olympic Pain and Addiction Services clinic on Lawrence Street, but Rotchford was never arrested and no charges were ever filed.  At the time, a DEA spokeswoman declined to discuss what agents were looking for.

    Rotchford told a reporter in 2010 he had nothing to hide and had done nothing illegal.

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