Living with Pain: Is the War on Pain Patients a Human Rights Violation?

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.”

Sound familiar?

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

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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9 Responses

  1. Sheri says:

    *sigh* I ‘liked’ this article on facebook, and now it says “Sheri likes Living with Pain” Dammit! That wasn’t what I meant at ALL! Figures, even trying to show support for the article twists it around.

    My pain mgmt doc wouldn’t give me pain meds because “it’s all in your head, you just need to lose weight, exercise more, eat right, take Lyrica (gained 60 lbs from it, thanks but no), it’s just mind over pain, learn to ignore it, you’re being kind of a baby, sucks to be you, shake it off” On the wall of the office, there was that big poster about how doctors don’t want to get sued if their patients might become addicted to pain pills and they won’t prescribe them without blood tests and all.

    My primary care doc knows I’m allergic to aspirin and Morphine and therefore pretty limited to what I can take for pain. He asks me how I take my pain meds, and says, “Oh, you can’t get addicted taking them like that, I have no problem with you taking them that way – but get your liver checked yearly” and I can get them renewed over the phone. It all depends on whether your doc is a real doctor, or a paranoid asterisk.

  2. Kathryn says:

    My mother suffered needlessly for years with horrible back pain caused by arthritis and curvature of the spine. I had to watch her suffer while the doctor would only prescribe what I would consider useless anti-inflammatory medicine. He finally prescribed Vicodin three years ago and she got some relief. Too bad she had to wait until the age of 77 for some real pain medication.

  3. Mark that’s a wonder idea! I am going to get every person I know to write to that address . I’m also going to get everyone to give it a shot on writing the ACLU! This is a human rights issue. I was dissapointed in the count at the rally., but I am happy that I was on the news at noon live, the evening and late night news in Tally. We as group were shown in Tally and Tampoa FL. There were several articles written about us. I will copy n paste some to you tomorrow. We were kept busy the entire time with media while we were at the Rally. We didn’t have one free minute. They had advertised us on the morning news in the area and some locals can and showed up while we were there! They ended up joining our group to. This was an historical ice breaker and we plan to continue. This is only the beginning for us. We plan to keep the hammer down! The governors personal aid came out to speak with us. We have decided this is not the new laws completely. Not at all! I asked that they alter the pharmacy guidelnes! We have decided to go after and complain abot the DEA scaring doctors, pharmacies and patients! We’ve condidered protesting at our local DEa offices alog with local state reps offices and going back to Tally with microphone in January. This time we had chairs to sit but we all held our picket signs when people entered the capital buiding and shouted we want our rights to our prescription pain meds! And that we wanted our constituational rights to pain relief reinstated!. The nicest part of it all? We got to meet our Facebook group members! We even stayed an extra night so we could hangout and enjoy our company that we had known for a year but in real life? We had a ball together. We look forward to busy immediately while the iron is hot! Were planning our next moves right now. It was a success! I will send you some things very shortly.

  4. Guy Abernathy says:

    All men are created equal and have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . These are the words of the Declaration of Independence. I see this as a violation of my liberty, and my pursuit of happiness because as a disabled chronic pain patient I am unable to do much more than trying to manage the pain. When big out of control government reaches out it’s oppressive hand and tries to solve a social problem by punishing those who need effective pain meds because of criminals who just want to abuse drugs they are being lazy and compassionless. People are being managed like cattle. We do not need any “management” that involves punishing the innocent because of the guilty. People make choices and you will not be successful in changing the heart of an addict by new laws, you will only create a situation where they will find another way to get what they want… and often that will result in new crimes being committed, as the addict will not take “no” for an answer. If they would, they would not be an addict. I am not saying ignore the problem of addiction, I am saying leave us disabled or even semi-disabled suffering people alone and go after the actual criminals. In other words big G…. you are lazy being and compassionless; You do not care about those whose bodies are “hell shells” and only need effective LEGAL pain meds in order to have an improved quality of life. I should have the liberty to pursue my dreams without the oppression of bad legislation whether it is from the the left, the right or even bipartisan bullies who obviously have no idea what is like to have every hour of your life controlled by pain. You have your life. You have your liberty. When pursuing your happiness please, Mr Government, while doing so please make sure you are not preventing anyone else from pursuing theirs. The war on drugs has become a war on the suffering. If I haven’t been clear enough to the law makers and even law enforcement who prompted this whole Florida debacle, you are currently really sucking at your job. Shame all oppressors such as yourselves. Get some integrity and get off your lazy tale and write legislation that puts the criminals in a jail cell without making my body a prison. Opiods are “LEGAL” for a reason. Maybe you should go back to old fashion police work, officer. Maybe you should visit a suffering soul, Mr. politician. We the people are only going to take so much before we vote you out off office. We the people will stand in the gap and expose the legislation for what it is; the death of my liberty to pursue as normal of a life as possible in spite of my diseased pain riddled body.

  5. Shannon says:

    Mark,

    Thank God someone is saying this! In the past few days I’ve heard a few private stories of outrageous mistreatment of pain patients. I’m directing them to contact the address you gave.

    -Shannon

  6. Very well said, Mark.

    About a year ago we wrote at Pain-Topics.org about “Stop the Torture in Health Care” [here: http://updates.pain-topics.org/2011/07/stop-torture-in-health-care-treat-pain.html. There are links there to worldwide organizations trying to attack some of the dire issues that you mention.

    Sadly, the debate about pain care in the U.S. is becoming driven by demagoguery rather than being guided by science. And, as in politics these days, crusaders for greater restrictions in the pain care field liberally employ inuendo, half-truths, and outright lies to further their cause. It’s a shame and a travesty.

  7. Malcolm Kyle says:

    Ending prohibition would greatly reduce, even almost eliminate, the market in illegal narcotics, cause a reduction in the number of users and addicts, greatly curtail drug related illness and deaths, reduce societal harm from problematic abusers, and bring about an enormous reduction in the presence and influence of organized crime. The people who use drugs are our own children, our brothers, our sisters, our parents, and our neighbors. By allowing all adults safe and controlled legal access to psychoactive substances, we will not only greatly reduce the dangers for both them and ourselves but also greatly minimize the possibility of ‘peer-initiation’ and sales to minors.

    If you sincerely believe that prohibition is a dangerous and counter-productive policy then you can stop helping to enforce it. You are entitled—required even—to act according to your conscience!

    * It only takes one juror to prevent a guilty verdict.
    * You are not lawfully required to disclose your voting intention before taking your seat on a jury.
    * You are also not required to give a reason to the other jurors on your position when voting. Simply state that you find the accused not guilty!
    * Jurors must understand that it is their opinion, their vote. If the Judge and the other jurors disapprove, too bad. There is no punishment for having a dissenting opinion.

    “It is not only [the juror's] right, but his duty … to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” —John Adams

    We must create what we can no longer afford to wait for: PLEASE VOTE TO ACQUIT!

  8. Erika says:

    Thanks for bringing attention to this important issue. Our society has become obsessed with protecting those knowingly doing something wrong (addicts and abusers) at the expense of people trying to do right (legitimate pain patients.) Our society needs to find the middle ground again. Denying pain treatment to those who require it is very cruel at best and a human rights violation at worst.

  9. Unhinged says:

    Mark, thanks for another great article. What is happening IS a human rights violation, in my opinion. To be denied treatment for pain, can feel exactly like being tortured. This is especially so, when treatment is readily available & is being systematically denied to people who benefit from it. Until you have lived with the kind of pain that shatters every aspect of you life, you just don’t get it. Intentionally allowing people to suffer, is torture. Period. Thank you for the address!

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