Chronic Illness, Chronic Pain, Health, Opioids

Raising Lazarus: Another Take on the Opioid Crisis

This article was first published by Pain News Network and written by Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Beth Macy’s bestselling book Dopesick” and the Hulu series based on it — helped shape the popular narrative on the origins of the opioid crisis: that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family duped physicians into prescribing highly addictive OxyContin to millions of pain patients, setting off a public health and overdose crisis that continues to this day.

Macy’s new book “Raising Lazarus” focuses on many of the same themes, but with an important new addition. She recognizes that opioid hysteria and fear of addiction went too far, depriving many people in pain of the medications they need to lead functional and productive lives.

“In recent years, law enforcement agencies, the CDC, and other medical authorities had overreacted to the first wave of the opioid crisis by clamping down too hard on opioid-prescribing,” Macy wrote. “Some doctors responded to the revised 2016 CDC opioid-prescribing guideline – and their fear of DEA prosecution – by declaring draconian caps and essentially abandoning their patients.

“People who needed opioids were refused access. Others with decades-long chronic conditions like extreme rheumatoid arthritis were abandoned by doctors and were now left bedbound. Some who were denied the opioids they’d been taking for decades attempted suicide or resorted to illegal drugs.”  

Those are welcome words from a noted critic of opioid “overprescribing.” But that passage – which is buried halfway through a 373-page book – doesn’t represent what Raising Lazarus is all about. Macy’s new book primarily deals with Purdue’s corporate greed and the ongoing struggles of working-class people in Appalachia to overcome addiction and a healthcare system that simply doesn’t work for them.

Macy is a bit defensive and resorts to gaslighting when she acknowledges past criticism from pain patients for Dopesick “drawing too much attention to overprescribed opioid pills.” Many of their complaints are valid, she admits, “if sometimes over-the-top and oblivious to the root causes of the crisis.”

Interestingly, Macy never actually quotes one of those “over-the-top” pain patients in Raising Lazarus, but she did interview Stanford pain psychologist Dr. Beth Darnall about the reluctance of doctors to prescribe opioids.

“Doctors are so concerned about being flagged, concerned about their license and their livelihood, they don’t want to take (chronic pain patients) on, and so you end up with patient abandonment, and iatrogenic harms that can create a medically dangerous situation,” Darnall told Macy.    

‘The Cruel World of Purdue Pharma’

Greed, no doubt, is one of the primary causes of the opioid crisis and Macy describes in detail how the Sacklers manipulated the political and legal system, paying their chief counsel the handsome rate of $1,790 an hour to gum things up as best he could to preserve the family fortune and prevent them from going to prison.

But she gives a free pass to others who have profited from the opioid crisis, often at the expense of pain patients, most notably the private plaintiff law firms suing drug makers on behalf of cities, counties and states.

Macy credits the late attorney Paul Hanly as being “the first to crack open the cruel world of Purdue Pharma” without pointing out that his law firm, Simmons Hanly Conroy, boasts that it “effectively invented large-scale, multi-defendant opioid litigation” and stands to make billions of dollars in contingency fees from settlement money.  

Also unmentioned is the $400,000 in campaign donations given by Simmons Hanly Conroy to former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in 2018, who conveniently produced a well-publicized report that year critical of drug makers and medical pain societies that the law firm was suing. Overwhelmed with legal fees defending themselves, two of those pain societies filed for bankruptcy, a loss that pain management specialists, researchers and patients could ill afford.

Macy does quote anti-opioid activists like Dr. Andrew Kolodny and Dr. Anna Lembke, but doesn’t mention that they testified as paid expert witnesses for Hanly and other plaintiff law firms, making well into six figures for their testimony, which they often failed to disclose in conflict of interest statements.  

“The opioid-litigation money is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Macy writes, with unintended irony.

Macy is hopeful the settlement money – once estimated at $50 billion — will go towards addiction treatment and better healthcare for communities ravaged by the opioid crisis. Unfortunately, much of it has already been spent on legal fees, media and public relations campaigns, and political donations. That’s not counting shady industries that have grown and prospered due to the opioid crisis; from drug testing and stem cell providers to cannabis promoters and drug cartels.  

Even though fentanyl and other street drugs are responsible for the vast majority of overdoses, Macy still clings to the tired notion that opioid pain medication started it all.

“A quarter century into the crisis, many people with OUD (opioid use disorder) have long since transitioned from painkillers to heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, the ultra-potent synthetic opioid. And we now have a generation of drug users that started with heroin and fentanyl,” she writes. “Death by drugs is now a national problem, but the crisis began as an epidemic of overprescribed painkillers in the distressed communities that were least likely to muster the resources to fight back.”

I look forward to Macy’s next book and hope that she hears more from the distressed community of pain patients. They need a champion to fight for them too, not more gaslighting.

Pain News Network is an independent, non-profit online news service that provides in-depth coverage about chronic pain and chronic illness. Our mission is to raise awareness about chronic pain, and to connect and educate pain sufferers, caregivers, healthcare providers and the public about the pain experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s