Methadone a Killer Prescription Drug
Posted by Childress on June 5, 2006
Deaths from methadone are on the rise — because prescriptions for methadone are on the rise. Here's the story, from the Charlestown (WV) Gazette:
Lynda Lee was recuperating in her Texas home following back surgery one day in November 2004. The 59-year-old nurse took the pain medicine her doctor had prescribed — methadone — then lay down on the couch in front of the television.
Her son found her there several hours later, dead. She had stopped breathing. The medical examiner said the cause of death was acute methadone intoxication.
"The coroner said there wasn't much in her system. It could have just been two pills," her daughter, Alisha Regan, told the Gazette.
Across the nation, the number of people methadone helped to kill tripled in just four years, from 790 in 1999 to 2,992 in 2003, according to an analysis of death certificates conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics at the Gazette's request.
Regan wonders why so many doctors are prescribing methadone.
"There have been many deaths from methadone, and it's still a top seller," she said.
The reason, doctors and researchers say, is that methadone is cheap and effective in treating pain.
Insurance companies and state health plans are pressuring doctors to consider methadone as an alternative to more expensive painkillers, said several physicians contacted by the Gazette.
Many doctors don't know how to prescribe methadone safely, said Howard Heit, a physician from Fairfax, Va., who specializes in treating pain and addiction.
"Insurance companies are forcing certain doctors to prescribe medications they don't understand," Heit said in a telephone interview. "The companies are looking more to their bottom lines as opposed to being advocates for patients."
Americans are consuming more methadone than ever before — almost 10 times more last year than a decade before, according to data obtained from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The companies that make methadone have seen their revenues rise, also. They have spent some of those millions on Washington, D.C., lobbyists.
One company, Tyco/Mallinckrodt, also provides grants to fund two Web sites edited by Stewart Leavitt, a methadone advocate and researcher who helped write the government's response to methadone overdose deaths (see accompanying story).
A Tyco spokeswoman referred a reporter to Leavitt when asked about methadone's safety.
Leavitt said the responsibility for methadone overdose deaths lies not with the companies that make it or the government that regulates it, but with doctors and patients.
"Ultimately, this is the individual responsibility of the citizen," he said. "At some point, people have to stand up and take responsibility for their actions."
Agreed, doctors and patients are ultimately responsible. But drug companies seeking the profits that come from new markets are responsible for training those markets of the risks.