Oregon was the first state to legalize assisted suicide for the chronically and incurably ill. One common argument in support of assisted suicide is that people in agonizing pain should be allowed to end their suffering. Now, however, Oregon is planning to ban coverage of painkillers for those with chronic pain… and some say this policy may compel many more chronically ill pain patients to “choose” assisted suicide.
Currently in Oregon, as in other states, people with severe disabilities or serious chronic illnesses can apply for Medicaid. However, the state is planning new Medicaid rules which would end coverage for pain medications for those receiving it. This would force chronic pain patients who are on Medicaid to go off their pain medication, regardless of their situation or the recommendations of their doctors. These are people who, through a lengthy and rigorous process, have been found to be so badly disabled and in pain that they are unable to work. Therefore, those on Medicaid include the most severely disabled and chronically ill people in the country — and, this makes them among the most vulnerable.
Supporters of this policy claim that the aim is to fight opioid abuse, but the people targeted are those with chronic pain who are taking the medications as prescribed – including those who have been stable on pain medications for years. In reality, only 22% of opioid addicts have ever gotten drugs from a doctor. Instead, they get the medication from the street or from theft. And a recent study shows that of those taking opioids for chronic pain, only 0.19% become addicted.
In consequence of this new policy, it is possible that the number of people seeking assisted suicide could rise dramatically due to denial of pain relief. It is deeply ironic that a state which legalized assisted suicide as a way out for those in pain could now be creating the very problem that assisted suicide was meant to solve.
There have been a rash of suicides over the past several years among those who have lost their pain relief due to a crackdown on opioid prescriptions. Phillip Kuykendall from Statesville, North Carolina, was denied pain medication by his doctor due to new CDC guidelines… and subsequently shot himself. A relative said, “He took the last, and only, relief he thought he had left.”
Alison Kimberly, who suffered from a rare, painful disease called interstitial cystitis. She was only 30 when she died by suicide after being forced to go off pain medication.
Ryan Trunzo of Massachusetts, a veteran who was injured in combat, committed suicide at the age of 26 after he was forced by the VA to taper off his pain medication.
Kevin Keller was another veteran who killed himself under similar circumstances.
Mercedes McGuire of Indiana left behind a four-year-old son. She killed herself after her dose of pain medications was reduced due to her provider’s policy of limiting opioid medications.
Bob Mason from Montana lost access to his pain management doctor and couldn’t find another one. He killed himself in January of 2016.
Zach Williams was another army veteran injured in combat. His injuries caused him extreme pain but was forcibly tapered off his pain medication due to a new policy in the VA. He killed himself shortly afterwards.
Denny Peck was another chronic pain patient who took opioid medications for years, and coped with the pain. When his pain clinic shut down, he could find no one else to prescribe the medication. His suicide note read, “Can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t do anything.” His family said he was bedridden from the pain when he had formerly been active.
Doug Hale of Vermont had interstitial cystitis as well. His doctor suddenly cut off his pain medication, afraid he would lose his medical licence in the current climate of opioid hysteria. Hale left a note reading, “Can’t take the chronic pain anymore,” before he shot himself. His widow, Tammi, now speaks out against chronic pain patients losing their medications.
No medical reason was given why Bryan Spece of Montana lost his pain medication. The doctor he was seeing was concerned that some of his patients might become addicted. But Spece was stable on the medication and never took it improperly. His pain clinic has numerous complaints against it by patients. Spece killed himself in 2017. A relative said, “He was the last person anyone would have thought to take his own life. He was just not that guy. I know he was in a lot of pain and in a very dark spot.”
None of these people had any history of mental illness. These are only a handful of the dozens of people who have killed themselves because they could find no relief from their pain, even though medications existed that could treat their pain.
With assisted suicide readily available to the chronically ill and disabled in Oregon, there is little doubt that many pain patients, forced to live in chronic pain, will now choose that option. It is much cheaper to give a chronically ill person a suicide pill than to pay for their health care for the whole of their lives. Oregon currently has almost a million people on Medicaid who will be affected by this new policy. Also, if the policy is adopted in Oregon, it is likely more states will follow suit.
You can contact the Oregon Health Authority at (503) 947-2340 or by email at [email protected] to ask them not to implement this new policy.