When we read about human rights violations, we usually think of Russia, China or third world countries. We rarely think of the United States. Yet here in the U.S. we are involved in a war on chronic pain patients that is especially egregious in Washington state and Florida.
This war on pain patients is waged by the Drug Enforcement Administration, federal and state prosecutors, politicians and government agencies. Their efforts are bolstered by special interest groups, which have joined with legislators in their unbalanced efforts to reduce the amounts of available opioid analgesics and to limit the number of people who have access to these powerful pain relievers.
The rationale for this war is that over the past decade there has been quite an increase in opioid analgesic prescribing, which authorities blame for the growing problem of diversion, addiction, accidental overdose and death. The thinking is that if prescriptions are limited, then the associated problems with these medicines will be ameliorated.
The special interest groups point to a few research reports indicating that a large portion of patients taking these medicines become addicted. But the available research on this is spotty and not yet well developed to make any conclusions.
Since the passage of legislation in Washington, pain patients have been dropped by their physicians and denied opioid prescriptions by cowed pharmacies worried about being closed by the DEA. Physicians who previously treated people with intractable pain are turning away patients as they fear scrutiny and the possible loss of their licenses to practice.
Looking at these consequences, it becomes apparent that those trying to reduce the availability of opioids are openly repressing millions of Americans who, because of their pain, have few resources to fight back with.
Human Rights Watch considers access to good medical care and freedom from torture as two fundamental human rights. Of course, it can be said that when they listed freedom from torture they most assuredly meant the kind of torture practiced by rogue nations — and a few democratic ones as well.
I would like to discuss one aspect of “good medical care” as it applies to Washington and Florida. The absence of medical care or the refusal to treat patients, especially when treatment is available, sinks to the level of poor or nonexistent medical care. These two states, with the passage of laws, changes in policy and the repression of medical and pharmacy health care providers, have severely reduced the availability of opioid analgesics for people living with moderate to severe pain.
This denial of standard medical care for pain patients should be considered a human rights violation. I say this because abandoning pain patients, refusing to treat them and refusing to fill their prescriptions often has catastrophic results; including torturous pain and an inability to work or have a normal family life. In my opinion, this sinks to the level of human rights abuse.
Relief from Pain is a Human Right
Last year, Human Rights Watch released a landmark study on pain management called the Global State of Pain Treatment: Access to Palliative Care as a Human Right. It found that pain relieving drugs and palliative care are so poorly available in some parts of the world that tens of millions of people – including 6.5 million terminal cancer and HIV patients – suffer needlessly.
“Governments have an obligation to address the widespread and unnecessary suffering caused by the poor availability of palliative care worldwide. Under international human rights law, governments must ensure equal access to the right to health and take reasonable steps to protect all against inhuman and degrading treatment,” the report states.
“This should mean that health policies address the needs of people who require palliative care services; that healthcare workers have at least basic palliative care knowledge and skills; that medications like morphine are available throughout the country; and that drug regulations do not impede the ability of patients facing severe pain to get appropriate treatment. Failure to take such steps will likely result in a violation of the right to health. In some cases, failure to ensure patients have access to treatment for severe pain will also result in violation of the prohibition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
I think that it is possible to speak of an individual, or class of individuals, as being tortured by medical neglect or refusal to treat. Pain patients being denied medical care or those who cannot find pharmacies to fill their opioid prescriptions are not only being tortured by their own bodies, but psychologically tortured by those who refuse to treat, refuse to fill prescriptions, and by those who advocate for even more restrictive use of opioids.
This repression of pain patients in Washington and Florida, which is unfortunately creeping throughout the country, is in my opinion torture and therefore a human rights violation.
I urge everyone who’s been affected by this repressive crackdown to write of their experiences and send them to Human Rights Watch @ 350 5th Ave. 34th Floor, NY, NY 10118-4700.
Pain advocates need to expand their efforts from a social justice issue to a human rights issue. Our rights need to be protected.
Mark Maginn lives in the east bay of San Francisco where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog can be found here.
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