Brenda Longfellow was hit with troubling news last August when she sought to refill her prescription for medication that kept chronic, debilitating pain at bay.
Longfellow, of Gardner, which is about 30 miles northeast of Streator in Grundy County, said she went to a new doctor after her previous doctor left the area and was told she needed to get off medication that helped her cope with complex regional pain syndrome. She said she was told patients such as her were no longer undergoing that kind of regimen.
“That would be like saying, ‘I want you to die,’” Longfellow said.
For almost 14 years, she said she’s been taking fentanyl, morphine, Ambien and other medication for the condition.
She managed to transition away from the medication since then and has been using medical marijuana. However, the experience has left her concerned that people with chronic pain conditions are unfairly being subjected to restrictions and stigma that arose in response to the ongoing opioid crisis.
“I must say, the perception out there right now is that everybody that’s on pain meds is a drug addict,” Longfellow said.
Will County Director of Substance Abuse Initiatives Dr. Kathleen Burke said the crisis was caused by over-prescribing of opioids and that there are efforts to try to get doctors to prescribe other medications. In an interview last year, Burke said doctors were uninformed and contributing to the problem.
“This is not meant to create any backlash but we have people dying everyday from opioids and we have to change,” Burke said.
One initiative to resolve the crisis is the Illinois Prescription Monitoring Program, a state-based database that helps clinicians determine if patients are already receiving other opioid medication or sedatives, she said.
The opioid crisis has been particularly acute in Will County, where an increasing amount of people have been dying from heroin- or fentanyl-related overdoses in recent years. In 2016, 78 people died in the county as a result of a heroin-related overdose. That number increased to 85 people last year, according to county overdose statistics.
In response to the crisis, county officials joined McHenry, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties last December in suing opioid pharmaceutical manufacturers to recover the costs of battling addiction.
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow has said it was time to hold those companies accountable for practices that created a demand for the drugs “as well as their failure to disclose damaging research that demonstrated their highly addictive natures.”
Burke said when people take opioid medication, their tolerance for it increases and they potentially take more. She said there are other medications for chronic pain.
“I think what’s happened is there’s a lot of education right now with the medical industry and what the industry standard is that opioids is not the best care with chronic pain,” Burke said.
Opioids are not first-line therapy for many patients with acute pain from minor injuries, whereas non-pharmacological and non-opioid analgesic therapy are preferred, according to prescribing guidelines from the Illinois Health and Hospital Association and Illinois College of Emergency Physicians.
For patients with chronic opioid therapy, clinicians should consult with a patient’s regular provider on how to manage their pain, according to the guidelines.
Burke said the state prescription monitoring program is not meant to prevent people from writing prescriptions but it will identify high prescribers. She said if there’s a person who is using their medication inappropriately, the hope is that they will be guided by doctors to treatment.
Longfellow said when her new doctor told her she needed to get off her current prescription, he was willing to fill them for at least four more months. She said she planned to slowly reduce her intake and transition to medical marijuana. But she was afraid she would run out of her medication before using medical marijuana.
“Without pain control of some kind, you just couldn’t survive,” she said.
When she was able to use medical marijuana, she described it as a “miracle.”
“It gave me back my life,” she said.
But the journey to replacing her previous medication with medical marijuana left her concerned for others like her. She said when she returned to her doctor this year for medical guidance, not to request prescriptions, she was required to take a drug screening test that cost more than $3,000. She said she found it unnecessary and insulting.
“It’s not like I’m coming in saying ‘I have a back ache and can you please give me some Vicodin?’” Longfellow said.