Opinion: Whitmer's opioid task force could cause more pain

Kenneth Waltzer

On Nov. 14, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and members of the governor’s Opioid Task Force announced a new Michigan initiative to deal with the continuing mortality crisis connected with the misuse of opioids.

More:Whitmer aims to cut opioid-related deaths 50%

Michigan's opioid strategy aims to prevent misuse, to ensure access to high-quality recovery treatment and to reduce harm to individuals and communities.

The State’s strategy aims to prevent misuse, to ensure access to high-quality recovery treatment, and to reduce harm to individuals and communities.

Regretfully, nothing in this strategy addresses at the same time the plight of innocent victims of the war on opioids. These victims are patients with intractable pain, who — due to legislative and regulatory actions misinterpreting the CDC 2016 guideline — face the harms of diminished access to appropriate care or forced tapering from opioids they have taken for years without ill effects.

In 2016, the CDC guideline exempted chronic pain patients with cancer, in hospice or in palliative care, but Michigan legislators and regulators in 2017 missed these exemptions. The state has recently acted to remedy the situation for patients in end-of-life hospice care, but did not go far enough to address the needs of thousands of chronic pain patients in palliative care who are suffering but not dying.

The singular focus on prescription opioids at a time when the mortality crisis has evolved significantly and stems today largely from the illicit use of heroin and/or fentanyl analogues is no longer prudent. This approach suggests that Michigan leadership misapprehends some of the current causes and dimensions of the mortality crisis.

Regulatory over-reach by the state licensing agency into the medical practices of physicians and other professionals also creates fear and anxiety. This in turn is diminishing the workforce willing to treat the needs of chronic pain patients. Nor does the state do all it can to offer updated, sophisticated education for prescribers about when and how it is appropriate to continue to assist pain patients with opioid treatment with proper supervision and follow-up.

A look at the new website set up by the MDHHS and the University of Michigan does little to allay the worry or strike a more balanced focus on ameliorating the conditions of chronic pain patients in palliative care while simultaneously mitigating overdose risk.

Sadly, the state continues marginalizing the plight of intractable pain patients. 

The governor’s Opioids Task Force has announced it will sponsor regional town halls around Michigan in the coming months. It is imperative that chronic pain patients who can attend these town halls do so and exercise their voices on behalf of a more balanced approach.

Chronic pain patients need legislative and regulatory reform to protect their rights and those of their affected health professionals. Both parties deserve places at the table in ongoing discussions of these critical issues.

Kenneth Waltzer is a coordinator of the Michigan Don’t Punish Pain Rally and a retired professor of history and public policy at James Madison College of MSU.