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CBS’ 60 Minutes this month aired its three-year investigation into the source of the current opioid crisis, detailing shocking greed by pharmaceutical executives industry-wide that led America down a path of addiction and death.
As 60 Minutes’ in-depth report detailed, courts are bringing at least some pharmaceutical executives to justice for foisting dangerous drugs on an unsuspecting public, but where does that leave people addicted to opioids now?
Healthcare services for addiction have always been inadequate in the face of the latest crisis, and people with substance use disorders often face stigma when seeking treatment. Now, the US faces another slow-grinding catastrophe in the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, further straining services for opioid users and making them even harder to access.
Medicinenet author and psychiatrist Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD writes that people with addiction problems are hard to get into treatment during the best times, let alone during a pandemic.
“An unfortunate fact about the treatment of drug addiction is that it remains largely underutilized by most sufferers,” Dryden-Edwards writes. “Fewer than 10% of people with a milder substance-use disorder and fewer than 40% of those with a more entrenched substance-use disorder seek professional help.”
Furthermore, opioids suppress respiratory function, making users potentially more susceptible to complications of COVID-19, according to the CDC.
The stress of the pandemic and social distancing is also likely to push some people in the fragile early stages of recovery back to the needle.
“While it is normal to experience stress and fear during this difficult time, changes in routine and physical distancing policies may be especially hard for people with a substance use disorder,” states the CDC fact sheet for addicted people during the pandemic. “Those in recovery may face heightened urges to use substances and could be at increased risk for relapse.”
The CDC also warns that services for those in recovery are compromised by the pandemic.
“Lack of access to medications for treating opioid use disorder may increase the likelihood of relapses and opioid overdoses,” the CDC states. “Due to physical distancing, many people with opioid use disorder may not have a family member or friend with them to give naloxone (a lifesaving drug) in the event of an overdose, resulting in more fatalities. Increased burden on emergency departments from COVID-19 may mean that people presenting with opioid overdose are less likely to be initiated on medication therapies, which is an important part of lessening the effects of the opioid crisis.”
Who Is to Blame for the Opioid Crisis?
U.S. Justice Department attorneys, federal judges, private claimants and their lawyers, and investigative journalists are still teasing out details of the shocking schemes used by pharmaceutical companies to dump powerful prescription opioids on America.
Multiple companies spent billions of dollars on false and misleading marketing campaigns and rackets to bribe doctors and manipulate their opioid prescribing habits. These well-organized, sophisticated efforts kicked off and sustained the decade-long opioid crisis, according to widely published court documents, scientific papers, and news reporting.
An Oklahoma judge in Aug. 2019 ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for playing down the dangers and overselling the benefits of powerful opioids, according to the New York Times, one of most important in several landmark rulings in recent years against drug companies implicated in the crisis.
Courts forced Purdue Pharma into bankruptcy over its role in pushing opioids like its proprietary OxyContin. Tens of thousands of claimants still have until July 30 to apply for payout from Purdue because of a loved one’s overdose death, addiction, or because a baby was born addicted to Purdue opioids, according to the Stamford Advocate, Purdue’s hometown paper in Connecticut.
Executives from a smaller pharma company in Arizona, Insys Therapeutics, weren’t just lying and manipulating the media and doctors to push their designer version of fentanyl, Subsys; Insys set up a nationwide racket to bribe doctors into pumping patients full of their trademark opioid.
Alec Burlakoff was an Insys sales executive who was sentenced in January along with the CEO and others. He gave 60 Minutes an interview in June 2020 on his role, describing the amoral calculus involved in enticing doctors into Insys’ drug pushing efforts. Salespeople looked for doctors “willing to play the game” by looking for lines of opioid-addicted patients outside their office doors, Burlakoff said.
Then, Burlakoff signed them up for Insys’ “speakers bureau” to disguise bribes as speaking fees as the doctors ramped up Subsys prescribing.
“Most doctors do not want to be bribed,” Burlakoff told 60 Minutes. “Ninety-eight percent of your business is going to come from two percent of your doctors."
What Do I Do Now if I’m Addicted to Opioids?
If you were prescribed an opioid manufactured by Purdue that led to an addiction and meet certain other criteria, you may be eligible for a payout. Apply at PurduePharmaClaims.com before July 30.
If you are addicted to fentanyl, heroin, or other opioids and you want treatment, you can still get it, despite the coronavirus pandemic complications, according to the CDC.
“Although face-to-face interaction is a key feature of recovery support, virtual meetings may be useful for those with access to the internet,” the CDC states. “Even though the physical distancing measures being implemented nationwide are important for reducing disease transmission, they may be especially difficult for people in recovery because they limit access to meetings of peer-support groups and other sources of social connection.”
Lots of established substance abuse rehab programs are offering virtual services, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Narcotics Anonymous is an old and well-established program that offers Skype meetings, but also secular recovery services like LifeRing offer online support. Less formal online recovery communities include Reddit Recovery and SoberCity online forums. The SAMHSA website provides dozens of web communities and helplines for people struggling with addiction.
But just because these services are offered and some are opening up along with the rest of the country, it doesn’t mean people seeking help with addiction know where to go for support.
“If someone is addicted to drugs, and they see these services in the community closing down, it’s very important for them to realize that now there has been an expansion of access of telehealth applications that enable them to receive treatment or support, including social network support, through these applications. Some of them are for free,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.