The U.S is currently in the midst of a terrifying opioid crisis; around 90 Americans die from opioid overdose every day. The crisis arrived in the 1990s when pharmacists began prescribing patients larger quantities of opioids to relieve pain, believing it wasn’t addictive.
This misconception propelled the widespread abuse of opioids (both prescription and non-prescription). In 2017, the Department of Health (HHS) announced a public health emergency entangling larger companies in lawsuits concerning their heavy distribution of opioids.
CVS and Walgreens have racked up almost 10 billion dollars in lawsuits; each company has agreed to evenly split the cost, paying around 5 billion dollars each. As part of their case, the federal government has claimed that the pharmacies have filled prescriptions deemed unnecessary and excessive for the patient. In response to these accusations, the companies have indicated that they will work to create educational programs and safe disposal units in public spaces to reduce the risks of use.
Although neither company has admitted to misconduct, Walgreens speaks about combative action, “this settlement framework will allow us to keep our focus and wellbeing of our customers and patients while making positive contributions to address the opioid crisis.”
Much of the money paid out by these companies will be spent on opioid overuse treatments and the prevention of its abuse. The states affected most by the opioid crisis will receive the most money. Additionally, three major pharmaceutical distributors, Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson, have agreed to strictly prohibit shipping and ordering of opioid orders for at least 10 years. They are to use high-tech data to determine which orders are suspiciously prescribed through patient accounts and forbid sales staff from making executive decisions pertaining to a client's prescription.
These companies haven’t explicitly admitted to their role in the opioid crisis, stating that they aren’t to blame for the epidemic. But it is undeniably true that pharmacists have “tricked doctors into writing too many pills,” which Kasper Stoffelymayr has stated.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers decided to make more money, corporate greed fueling much of the crisis. Considering this, blame cannot be placed on individual pharmacists or other medical professionals. Many times, medical professionals only meant to help; they didn’t want them to experience physical trauma when it could be avoided. The corporations were the root cause, which says something about the state of our healthcare system for this to happen.
The United States healthcare system has fueled the fire, encouraging doctors’ private practice. This means that doctors can increase the number of patients they see and decide how much medication their patients receive, which could be dangerous. Previously, these private doctors were also unsure whether to question pharmacists’ perspectives, partly because they weren’t experts in pain management.
Doctors haven’t been particularly highly educated on the effects of pain medication, and in this lack of training, patients began to believe it was a better option to continue receiving these medications. Dr. Philip Hartman remembers learning in medical school (2010), that if patients felt their opioids weren’t at full potential, prescribing greater dosage to patients was expected.
Dr. Hartman stated, “We were literally taught that people don’t get addicted if they take (pain pills) as prescribed by their physician.”
The system of education for doctors hasn’t changed all that much, which means that the effects of painkillers have not been updated for medical education. We have to remember that the opioid crisis has just recently been declared a public health emergency, but it wasn’t so important in the primary care of patients two decades ago.
From this, we must acknowledge that in order to honestly understand the situation, we must recognize that major corporations like these need to anticipate and work to prevent significant crises like this; they need to put plans in place to steer away from the money-making corporate strategies that have been implemented for decades. To protect the future of public health, these companies must shift their traditional and capitalistic way of thinking and transition to a vision of the greater good.
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Doctors, physicians, and public health leaders must acknowledge that our healthcare system simply cannot survive on the current economic ideals that it stands upon. And that we can not have thousands of lives at stake at once.
This epidemic has decreased the level of trust that medical professionals may have had in patients; they need to re-develop the public’s confidence for the nation and for the good of all citizens.
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