Weekly Column

By U.S. Senator Deb Fischer

**Audio is not available for this week’s column**

 I recently read an article in the Lincoln Journal Star that tells an all-too-familiar story. In 2012, Dr. Jeff Fraser, a family practice doctor from Lincoln, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After his third treatment, another doctor prescribed him hydrocodone for back pain caused by the cancer. “That’s when my brain got addicted,” Dr. Fraser said.

Dr. Fraser began to divert prescriptions from his practice, meaning he would write hydrocodone prescriptions for patients, then reimburse them for their copays after they brought him their pills. He started with the recommended dose of a few tablets each day. But he kept using for years, and that number eventually rose to 40, 50, even 60 hydrocodone pills a day.

He struggled in silence for years, fearing that he would lose his practice and possibly his family if he told anyone about his opioid addiction. He tried to break the cycle on his own, even Googling how to self-detox hundreds of times – but that’s not how addiction works. Substance abuse can alter your brain chemistry to the point that your body thinks you need another dose just to survive.

In January 2018, Dr. Fraser finally got the help he needed. Since then, he has devoted his life to helping people understand the disease of addiction and the dangers of abusing opioids.

Dr. Fraser’s story is not unique. Many other Americans’ struggles with addiction start in the same way, with a seemingly harmless prescription from their doctor. But opioids can be extremely addictive, and they are also vastly overprescribed: A 2017 study showed that more than 80 percent of patients receive opioids after low-risk surgeries. When you realize that 51 million people undergo inpatient surgeries each year, you start to get an idea of how pervasive these drugs are in the United States.

Part of the reason for this is that even though we have learned so much about the dangers of opioids in recent years, our laws haven’t kept up. In 2016, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, the first major federal addiction law in 40 years. I supported this bill, which created important prevention and education programs to combat the opioid epidemic.

These changes were long overdue, but certain Medicare and Medicaid policies still encourage health care providers to prescribe opioids instead of safer alternatives. This leads many doctors to prescribe opioids even when other medications are a better option for many patients.

A bill that was recently reintroduced in the U.S. Senate would help stop the overprescription of opioids. I am a cosponsor of this legislation, the NOPAIN Act, which would require Medicare and Medicaid to temporarily provide separate payments for non-opioid treatments. This would ensure that providers are not incentivized to prescribe opioids over safer options. 

Perhaps most importantly, this bill does not penalize providers for prescribing opioids or restrict them from carrying out the best care plan for their patients. Instead, it balances patients’ needs with the right incentives at the federal level. This will ensure that doctors can do right by their patients without worrying about financial repercussions.

This bill would give us a powerful weapon in the fight against opioid abuse. 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses from April 2020 to April 2021, the most ever in a single year. More than 200 Nebraskans were among them, up 43 percent from the year before.

The NOPAIN Act would do right by both patients and doctors, making sure that opioid alternatives are used as often as possible. It would help save future generations of Nebraskans from addiction – and I look forward to getting this common-sense bill passed.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week. 

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