Chronic pain patients push back against new opioid rules

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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) There is widespread agreement in the medical community that people often get hooked on opiates initially through a legal prescription from their doctor to treat pain. According to the CDC, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids quadrupled. It's led to a tightening of the belt and a stigma with dispensing drugs. But what about people suffering from chronic pain? Eva McKend spoke with families who say new regulations are hurting their loved ones.

Shaking, vomiting, and in severe pain, Tammi Hale's husband, Doug, made one final trip to the doctor last year before deciding he could take no more. "The doctor said I'm not going to risk my license for you anymore and he showed us the door," she said.

The 53-year-old Rutland father had been battling a number of chronic illnesses for years, including two congenital birth defects. Opioids made him stable, but Tammi says the medical community's swift change in attitude toward the drug meant Doug would be abruptly weaned off. "Once you need opioids, you are lumped in with the addicts, and it's not the same thing. It's apples and oranges," she said.

Days after leaving the doctor's office, Doug Hale took his own life. "People are left with three choices. They can live with unrelenting pain with no help, they can turn to street drugs, or they can commit suicide," she said.

It's not only the Hale family. Jim Lessard takes care of his chronically-ill wife, Marie, in Graniteville. He says he's recently run into the same problem. "Bottom line -- it's just ruined our life," he said.

Marie is on liquid oxygen for her breathing. She can be heard screaming in agony in the back room. "It's hard to hear her crying. You can't do anything," Lessard said, as he tries to hold back tears.

Tammi and Jim both came to Channel 3 with their stories because they're concerned about the Vermont Health Department's new rules for prescribing opiates.

"We're really focused more on the initial prescription rather than the chronic pain patient," said Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. He says the rules, formally instituted last month, are geared towards limiting opioids for people with acute pain -- like fractured bones. He says those rules would not have applied to severe pain patients like Doug and Marie, but he acknowledges that there could be confusion. "There can be an erosion of use of opioids to a point that could be swinging the pendulum too far and denying patients that it could be very useful for -- for them and their pain."

Levine says he hopes the medical community can focus on alternatives to treating pain that don't involve medications. He says patients can also be referred to chronic pain specialists.

That does little to sway Tammi Hale, who's become an advocate for people in pain and a staunch critic of what she describes as a "one-size-fits-all" mentality. "The guidelines are killing people," she said.

The Vermont rules are separate from the nationwide CDC guidelines, which have also become stricter in the last few years. Levine also says Vermont's new rules are aimed to cover things like safe storage of medication, and what to do with leftover opioids. He says his office has actually not received much feedback from the chronic pain community since the rules went into effect last month.