Governor Charlie Baker’s Plan to Restrict M.D.’s Opioid Prescriptions: Misdirected Energy

Here in Massachusetts, we’ve got a serious problem involving heroin use. A lot of deaths have resulted, and clearly, we need to address this problem. No one, including myself, disputes that.

But you can rely on government to step in and largely botch the potential solutions to a given problem. Entirely unproductive efforts, misguided approaches and hundreds of billions of dollars of wasted taxpayer money have been the combined legacy of this country’s utter and abject failure to address drug use that is harmful. For the past 40+ years, the federal and state governments have dramatically called this effort, the “War on Drugs.” And it has been no more effective than the “War on Poverty.” (Look around you, if you doubt that.)

The most recent, and here in Massachusetts, most local example of this wasted and misdirected energy to address the heroin epidemic in Massachusetts? Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent proposal to limit the amount of painkillers that doctors can prescribe for patients, a product of his “Opioid Working Group,” which he assembled to “tackle” the heroin epidemic in Massachusetts. As part of his grand plan, Gov. Baker would step in between the privacy of doctors and patients, and actually prevent doctors from writing prescriptions for pain medications beyond a very small number of pills (maximum of 72 hour supply,) for seriously injured and ill patients, suffering from severe pain.

This is patently unwise and misdirected energy toward solving the heroin epidemic in Massachusetts. Not only does this idea invade the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, (something I value respect very much since the same confidence applies to the attorney-client relationship,) but it also incorrectly attributes the source of this problem to physicians. The problem here is DEALERS, not DOCTORS. As a Norfolk County Massachusetts drug offense attorney, who is in court almost every day, I see a variety of different Massachusetts drug charges and drug defendants, from dangerous and serious drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, to very minor marijuana ‘offenses.’ I can confidently state that very few of the drug cases I see begin in doctors’ offices. The problem here is heroin: Prescription painkillers are not heroin. The fact that they are both narcotics no more supports the idea that heroin use begins in doctors’ offices, than would the idea that cocaine use begins in coffee shops (both caffeine and cocaine are addictive, powerful stimulants.)

Despite the fact that the Massachusetts Medical Society openly opposes this idea, a physician member of Gov. Baker’s Opioid Working Group had the following to say in support of this ridiculous idea: “We prevent diabetes by limiting exposure to foods & beverages; we prevent lung cancer by limiting exposure to tobacco smoke.” Under that reasoning, given the fact that alcohol kills more people every year than any other drug, why isn’t Gov. Baker proposing that we limit all alcohol purchases to nip size bottles, and all bar service of alcohol to one drink only? Answer: Money. Far, far more money is spent in this state every day on alcohol, than has ever been spent on prescription pain medications. The alcohol industry and restaurant/entertainment associations would crush any such a plan like a proverbial ton of bricks. The point: Baker and his group are blaming the wrong party here: Doctors have neither started nor fueled the heroin epidemic in Massachusetts, and they are not the problem: Dealers are.

Limiting what doctors can prescribe for serious pain is a foolish and misdirected idea. This idea should end right now, before it begins. The far more productive and more effective approach to solving this heroin epidemic is two-fold: 1) Focus on DEALERS, not DOCTORS, and 2) Treat addicts, don’t prosecute them. They need hospital rooms, not jail cells. As concerns the second part of that plan, the Gloucester Police Department has been exemplary in providing needed leadership in this approach. Click here to see my previous article on that subject.

I recommend that my readers and clients phone Gov. Baker’s office and register their disapproval with this foolish and unethical idea of invading the privacy of the physician-patient relationship by preventing doctors from prescribing necessary amounts of prescription painkillers for their patients in need of such medication. The phone number to the governor’s office is: (617) 727-3600. Tell the person you speak with that you oppose this idea as bad public policy and unfair to patients in need of effective pain relief.

Why should you do this? Because you or someone you care about may just end up in a doctor’s office in the near future, in a lot of pain due to an injury or illness, and have to listen to your doctor tell you, “Sorry , but a new law says that I can’t write you more than a very small amount of this medication. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

I doubt that most people who are in a lot of physical pain due to injury or illness, would want to hear that.