Feeling the pain of the opioid crackdown

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Doctors, lawmakers, authorities, everyone seems to be focused on cracking down on the opioid epidemic in America.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the drug is shortening overall life expectancy in the US, killing about 115 Americans each day through overdoses. That’s more than four an hour.

But, as officials try and cut back opioids, are some who legitimately need them falling through the cracks?

Sherry Bonelli, of Cedar Rapids, is a digital marketer. She’s her own boss, but some days it feels like her painful migraines are really her master. The horrible hurting sometimes leaves Bonelli paralyzed.

“It’s to the point where I have to just lay still and not move," said Bonelli. "I can’t turn my head because it hurts so bad. Usually, I just lay down and just not move.”

Bonelli's tried all that’s legal to curtail her chronic suffering-- expensive injections, chiropractors, even acupuncture. But, she said, nothing has worked like opioids.

“The Percocet, or the opioids, are the only medicine that seems to make a difference in knocking down the pain level of the headache,” said Bonelli.

For eight years she’s been taking a pill one to two times a day, depending on how bad things are. That is until just a few months ago when her doctor cut her off.

“He wrote one more prescription for me and then said that he was no longer supposed to write anymore," Bonelli. "When I asked him about it, he had said that the medical board was coming down on all physicians.”

Bonelli is in a position more and more opioid users are finding themselves. She believes she’s a responsible user, but still can’t get the help she wants as doctors across the country cut back on prescribing the highly addictive drugs to stifle the epidemic. Bonelli feels she’s fallen into a crack.

“There are people like me... who have chronic pain," she said. "This is the only medication that helps us. We’re the victims that people aren’t talking about.”

A look at the numbers shows how dramatically doctors have started reducing prescriptions in Iowa. The state peaked in 2012 with 74.1 retail opioid prescriptions per 100 persons, according to the CDC. In 2016-- the rate was down to 64, the lowest since 2011.

In fact, to reduce addiction risk, that same year the Iowa Board of Medicine encouraged physicians to follow federal guidelines for prescribing opioids to those with chronic pain. In promotional material, officials printed the words “IN GENERAL, DO NOT PRESCRIBE OPIOIDS AS THE FIRST-LINE TREATMENT FOR CHRONIC PAIN.”

“I think the Board of Medicine, they’re trying to make sure that safe practices are in place in the state,” said Dr. Dustin Arnold, the chief medical officer with UnityPoint Health - St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

Dr. Arnold said St. Luke’s started its crackdown around 2015. It created a multipoint plan for addressing opioids; no more than seven-day prescriptions, education for medical staff, checking a database to identify potential drug-seeking behavior and prioritizing alternative methods like physical therapy and anesthetics to treat and eliminate pain without the need for the pills.

“It keeps you up at night thinking about this," said Dr. Arnold. "It’s-- on so many levels it’s been a perfect storm, but also preventable on so many levels.”

Dr. Arnold was aware that some patients take issue with the opioid drawback, but said a physician’s medical opinion isn’t always what a person wants to hear.

“Some patients you have to be fraternal," said Dr. Arnold. "Then, others, paternal. You have to make a decision that may be not to their liking, but is the best for their healthcare.”

Bonelli said her days are now filled with pain as she holds on to one solitary pill-- wondering if her daily migraine is going to be bad enough to warrant its use.

“But, then I have to consider, is tomorrow’s going to be worse? So, it’s just sitting there in the bottle,” said Bonelli. “We’re suffering every day because of this crackdown."

To change minds-- Bonelli is doing what she can to keep an opioid gateway open for people like herself. She’s advocating for safe, responsible use of the drugs while recognizing something has to be done to cut abuse.

Bonelli’s talked with Iowa’s governor and written Senator Joni Ernst about the issue. Plus, she’s reached out to the media.

Bonelli was adamant that she was a victim of an opioid cutback and not a victim of addiction.

“No. I’ve been off of them," she said. "I’ve been on them. Truly, it’s the only medication that helps me.”

Some new help for people like Bonelli could be on the way. The Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug a few days ago to help combat migraines-- which around 12% of Americans suffer from.

It’s a monthly injection that requires a prescription and works by blocking a specific molecule involved in migraine attacks. It is expensive, about $600 a month or $7,000 a year.