How Our Healthcare System Creates Drug Addicts

How Our Healthcare System Creates Drug Addicts

By TLB Contributing Author: Kate Harveston

We hope our health care system would function as a means of providing attention and comfort in our hours of need, and for many, that’s what it does. For some,though, that care creates a culture of drug dependence and leads to otherwise healthy patients becoming addicted to the very drugs that are supposed to be helping them heal. How is our healthcare system creating drug addicts, and is there anything we can do to change this culture?

Creating Addicts by Fostering Painkiller Dependence

Painkillers are an invaluable tool for patient treatment — elevated pain levels have been shown to increase patient stress and healing times, so even if patient comfort wasn’t a consideration, it makes sense for medical professionals to do everything possible to reduce patient pain levels during recovery.

In 1996, a drug company released a new narcotic painkiller — one that uses a slow-release formula, so it’s less likely to be addictive. This caused a shift in prescribing practices across the board. These new painkiller formulas were considered safe and non-addictive, so they were prescribed more readily. Slowly, this aggressive treatment plan for chronic pain management began to lead to the epidemic that we’re facing today.

What was the new drug released in 1996? OxyContin. It took 11 years for the company to come clean about their product’s addictive properties. By then, though, the damage was already done.

2015 saw more than 20,000 deaths related directly to prescription pain reliever overdose, and researchers estimate more than 2 million people in the United States alone have a substance abuse disorder because of prescription pain medication. With more than 80% of the world’s opioid pain killers being prescribed and sold in the United States, it’s no surprise that this country is in the middle of one of the worst drug-related epidemics in recent history.

These addictions have also led to the creation of ‘pill mills’ — doctors who abuse their station to prescribe opioids and other addictive medication for anyone willing to pay, whether they need it or not. The medical community has been cracking down on these mills, but it hasn’t stopped addicts from getting what they need. More than 70% of individuals addicted to pain killers say they get their drugs from friends or family members rather than going to the doctor.

No Solutions Being Offered

Solutions to the opioid epidemic vary from totally useless to dangerously extreme. On the extreme side of things, one town in Ohio is considering implementing a three strikes rule for addicts who overdose. Typically, an individual experiencing an overdose will receive Narcan, a drug that counters the effects of opioids and helps the body recover. Middletown, Ohio, is proposing a law that will prevent overdosing individuals from getting the help they need if they’ve requested the assistance of emergency medical services twice before. It’s quite literally three strikes, and you’re out.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it isn’t a solution. For some people, especially those who can’t afford rehabilitation, it’s probably a death sentence.

One solution to pharmaceutical companies is to tie the cost of a drug directly to a patient’s outcome — commonly used, life-saving medications would be priced lower, while more dangerous drugs, like addictive painkillers, could be priced higher to make them harder to obtain for the average abuser.

This isn’t a perfect solution — it might put necessary pain medication out of the reach of chronic pain sufferers — but it could be a step in the right direction to prevent these drugs from getting into the wrong hands.

Opening Our Minds to Alternatives

There are some alternatives to addictive painkillers we haven’t even considered because of the “war on drugs.” In this case, the option we’re ignoring is medical marijuana — and its benefits are twofold.

Scientists have discovered medical marijuana is an effective treatment for chronic pain — the chemicals in the drug act as a natural anti-inflammatory that helps reduce pain for conditions like arthritis, or injury-related pain.

It could also potentially be used to combat the opioid epidemic that our healthcare system has created. States that have a fully established medical marijuana program have noticed an average of 1800 fewer painkiller prescriptions annually. It’s also possible to use medical marijuana to reduce the effects of opioid withdrawal, making recovery easier and relapse less likely.

Unfortunately, medical cannabis isn’t an option for everyone, at least not yet. Currently, 28 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use, but the federal government still considers it a Schedule I drug, making it illegal on the federal level.

The Potential Tragedy of Trumpcare

Healthcare has been in the news almost constantly for the past few months as the Republicans try to repeal, replace or just do away with the Affordable Care Act. We already know how this will affect millions of people — upwards of 23 million are expected to lose their health care if the ACA is removed or changed — but what many people don’t see is the impact this will have on the opioid epidemic.

Of the 23 million individuals who are expected to lose their health care, 3 million of them are receiving treatment for substance abuse and addiction. Anyone getting their care through Medicaid will likely lose their coverage, as every version of Trumpcare has included dramatic cuts to Medicaid and other similar low-income programs.

While most of the country is at least moderately worried about the opioid epidemic, the people who are most at risk are the ones who are slipping through the cracks. The healthcare system has been set up for more than 20 years to create this epidemic — and now they’re struggling to clean up the mess they’ve made.

It’s going to take more than reducing the number of addicts — we need to find alternatives to pain killers and care for the people who have become products of this broken system. At this point, the most important thing to do is to change the system, maybe even rebuilding it from the ground up if need be, to reduce the number of people becoming addicted to prescription pain killers every day.


About the Author: Kate Harveston is a political journalist from Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about both social change and policy reform. Visit her at for more of her work.


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