Opioid Crisis: Have politicians turned it into a war on doctors?

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(Source: CNN) (Source: CNN)
'I can give a list a mile-long of all the things that were done with good intentions that have unintended consequences, including our current opioid policy ...,' Dr. Jeffrey Singer said. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) 'I can give a list a mile-long of all the things that were done with good intentions that have unintended consequences, including our current opioid policy ...,' Dr. Jeffrey Singer said. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Dr. Jeffrey Singer (Source: Cato Institute) Dr. Jeffrey Singer (Source: Cato Institute)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

All month long, Arizona’s Family has been peeling back the layers of our state’s growing opioid epidemic.

We looked at needle exchange programs working in the shadows of the law by popping up in parking lots across the Valley.

[READ MORE: Needle exchanges: Should it be legal?]

We profiled grieving families who say our current drug policies let their sons and daughters fall through the cracks to their untimely deaths.

[RELATED: Pill to the needle to the grave: Does gov’s new opioid plan do enough?]

And then I received a haunting, anonymous voicemail out of the blue. 

“Hi, Mr. McLaughlin...I listen to you every night. About the uh...pain pills... I've had seven back surgeries... ahh, my back is completely stoked up. You have completely-pert near- destroyed my life by taking those pills away from me....”

He did not leave a name or a phone number. But from the sound and tone of his voice, it was presumably from a life crippled by pain. A man scared for his future as our state and national leaders crack down one the very drugs designed to relieve his and other people's suffering.

"Clearly opioid overprescribing and not having accountability with opioid prescriptions has been a problem," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said while visiting with Arizona tribes last week.

[RELATED: Zinke tells tribal leaders in Arizona he'll fight opioids]

[RELATED: Tribes, hit hardest by opioid crisis, have least access to federal help]

And then, President Trump took direct aim at drug dealers and doctors while in New Hampshire.

"Whether you are a dealer or doctor or trafficker or manufacturer, if you break the law and illegally peddle these deadly poisons, we will find you, we will arrest you and we will hold you accountable," he said.

[RELATED: This is how lawmakers plan to end the opioid crisis]

"Doctors know that no two patients are alike. Everything is nuanced," explained Dr. Jeffrey Singer. "Politicians don’t do nuance. They do one size fits all."

Singer is a general surgeon in Phoenix; he has been practicing medicine for more than 35 years.

"I deal with patients in pain all the time," Singer said, his Brooklyn accent in full bloom. "I'm a surgeon. I deal with cancer patients, trauma patients."

Singer says the politicians have it all wrong.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Opioid Crisis in Arizona]

"What did they say? The road to hell is paved with good intentions? I can give a list a mile-long of all the things that were done with good intentions that have unintended consequences, including our current opioid policy, which now has the unintended consequence of driving non-medical users to heroin and fentanyl," Singer said.

Singer is also a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. That’s the high-profile Libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. In addition, he works in the Center for the Study of Science and the Department of Health Policy Studies. He's a prolific writer on public policy.

"I've always believed in individual liberty and I've always believed in the role of government is to protect that liberty, not to infringe upon our liberty," he said.

He has what many call blistering views on political leaders blaming doctors for the current opioid crisis.

With deaths mounting across Arizona, state lawmakers were called into a special session in January by Gov. Doug Ducey. In just three days, they passed the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act.

[READ MORE: Arizona Legislature passes law tackling rising opioid crisis]

[READ MORE: Arizona governor signs law he sought to target opioid abuse]

[WATCH: Ducey signs Opioid Epidemic Act into law]

Singer says the rushed legislation is rife with flaws and was passed with no input from the medical profession.

Doctors know that no two patients are alike. Everything is nuanced. Politicians don’t do nuance. They do one size fits all.

We asked if he thought the governor was under pressure to get something passed.

"Well, he's running for re-election!" Singer responded. "Come on, it's an election year, so everyone has to appear that they are doing something."

Singer's main problem is the restrictions on the number of opioids doctors can prescribe.

[RELATED: What is the opioid crisis and how does it affect me?]

"Even the CDC, in their guidelines, have told doctors to individualize their prescribing because they know their patients better than everybody," Singer said. “Doctors weigh the risks versus the benefits each time they write a prescription, but to individualize it. But we are not allowed to individualize it because you have people who don’t practice medicine, without any evidence [as] basis for what they are doing, dictating to us how many prescriptions we can write."

"Government data says less than 25 percent of non-medical opioid users obtain a prescription from a doctor," he continued. "[That means,] 75 percent get it from a friend, a relative, rob a medicine cabinet or they get it from a dealer on the street."

Singer said that's not the only issue.

"The other thing that the state did wrong starting next year is that I can only write five days’ worth of opioids for my post-op patients," he said. "Which means instead of having my post-op patients come for his visit in two weeks like I usually do, I have to make him come back in five days to give him a refill because it’s a controlled substance. Now, this is based on no science whatsoever.”

According to Singer and numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, high-dose opioid prescriptions by doctors are down 41 percent since 2010 and overall prescriptions are down 19 percent. But overdoes rates go up year after year. Deaths are up a staggering 20 percent from 2015 to 2016.

[INFOGRAPHICS: Opioid deaths in AZ by age, race, type of opioids]

[INFOGRAPHIC: Numbers paint grim story in Arizona's opioid crisis]

"So, what do we keep doing?” Singer asked. “We keep making doctors prescribe less opioids to their patients and the overdose rates keep going up and all we are doing by restricting the number of opioids that can be diverted into the black market, we are just making the non-medical user switch their drug to the more dangerous heroin and fentanyl and that's killing them.

"So, our policy is driving up the death rate," he continued. "And at the same time, people who need the pain medication are suffering because they are being cut off."

 Does Singer feel like he and other medical professionals are getting blamed?

“Not only that, but many of my colleagues feel under siege," he said. "They're afraid. I think it's an unintentional war on patients and doctors. I think they're thinking it’s a war on opioids, but what it really is is a war on patients and doctors."

"And it’s a war on non-medical users also," he continued. "Because most non-medical users are not bad people. This is a medical condition. Addiction is a medical condition. These are people who need help. This is a problem and what we are doing is driving them to the more dangerous stuff. We are increasing their risk that they are going to die or get disease. That is what our policy is doing.”

[VIDEO: Breaking the stereotype of heroin addicts]

So, our policy is driving up the death rate," he continued. "And at the same time, people who need the pain medication are suffering because they are being cut off.

So, what is the future and where does it end?

"What I see in the near future is more doubling down with what isn’t working," Singer said. "And we are going to continue to see the overdose rate go up.”

That outlook is no consolation for the frustrated man in pain on my voicemail. 

"But it's OK now that they've taken away all the pills," he said. "They think they're doing me a great favor. Now they're going to stick a couple of needles in my spine. I guess that's OK with you because you don’t have to have a needle stuck in your spine. You guys go ahead a have a good life.”


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