Bankrupting America: The High Cost of Prescription Pain Medication
It’s no secret that medical expenses in the United States have gone from excessive to outrageous. Whether you’re sitting in the emergency room waiting for your kid to get stitches or at the pharmacy picking up arthritis medication, the bill can be overwhelming. One accident or surgery and all of a sudden you’re eating instant noodles, shaving your legs with single-blade razors, and borrowing cash from your grandmother.
Medical expenses can take a significant chunk out of your monthly income. And things only get harder if you struggle with chronic pain or another long-term condition, where every refill of Vicodin or Percocet chips away at your savings account (seemingly with no end in sight).
The cost of prescription pain medication can also extend beyond the bank account, from distressing side effects to endless doctor visits and the mind-numbing stress of dealing with insurance.
What Do Prescription Medications Cost Your Wallet?
Imagine that you’re an athlete.
After decades of playing the sport you love, something goes wrong. You fade back for a jump-shot – or put a little extra umph behind your swing – and pain strikes, sharp and strong, in your lower back and hip. While every athlete eventually twists an ankle or feels their knees begin to go, this feels different.
The next day you go to the doctor’s office, pull yourself up to the awkwardly tall, bed-like table lined with disposable paper and wait. After waiting with the pain far longer than you think is reasonable, your doctor sees you and prescribes an opioid. Of course, your doctor would normally suggest over the counter painkillers or a muscle relaxer, but your pain is so severe she thinks something stronger is needed.
You follow the doctor’s orders: take your meds, do your daily stretches, and avoid heavy lifting. But the pain persists. Not feeling any better, you’re forced to request additional refills.
This is where the problem really starts.
Your doctor prescribes one tablet of Percocet with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with enough to last you one week (and allowing one refill). The hope is that after a few weeks the pain will recede enough that you can rely on simple paracetamol or acetaminophen until you are completely healed.
The expected path to recovery puts your mind at ease, but now you’re anxious about the cost of the medication. Three pills a day for 14 days comes to 42 pills. If each tablet costs nearly $25, you’d be spending $1,050 for only two weeks!
With decent health insurance you can expect to pay significantly less. You know someone has to foot the rest of the bill, but better the insurance company than you, right? We’ll get to that later.
But 43.4% of U.S. adults are uninsured, underinsured, or saw gaps in their coverage in the first half of 2020. If you fall into that category, your options become much more limited. Can you afford to pay $1,050 for the medication? Will you ask your doctor for a cheaper pain killer? Those may not be as effective in providing relief, and medication like Vicodin still averages around $325 for 90 tablets.
Worse yet are the potential costs if the pain persists beyond the two weeks. Your doctor can either renew the prescription, resulting in another large bill, or she refuses to authorize additional refills, and you’re left without the relief you need.
Without access to prescription pain relief, you may be tempted to get your medication “elsewhere,” which presents its own serious risks. Yikes.
Unless your injury miraculously heals in under two weeks, you can’t see how this works out well. At least not for your budget.
Let’s see how your body fairs.
What Is the Cost of Pain Medication On Your Body?
One of the biggest challenges of taking prescription pain medication – a challenge that has caused its own epidemic – is the potential for an opioid addiction.
Opioids work by attaching themselves to opioid receptors in your cells that numb feelings of pain in your brain. The effects begin to wear off after about six hours, which requires another dose. The idea is that your body is healing itself, and that these drugs simply help you withstand the pain as your body does what it’s naturally intended to do. Then, when the pain subsides you can switch to over-the-counter medications or stop entirely.
However, what if your body is unable to heal itself? For conditions with no cure, like arthritis, a doctor’s only game plan is to manage inflammation and pain. This requires an ongoing and likely permanent regimen of painkillers. In many cases, especially as the condition develops, opioids are prescribed.
Even if the dosage is prescribed well and you are diligent about using the drug appropriately, continued use runs a very high risk of dependency and mental or physical addiction.
This can't be an ongoing solution.
But what’s the alternative? Is there one?
Either you continue living in constant pain, or you do what you have to do to make things better, right? And after years of nagging, lingering chronic pain, even addiction to pain meds might seem like a better alternative to the cycle of exhausting days and sleepless nights.
At first, weighing the pros and cons is simple. But opioid addiction isn’t something to take lightly. Here are a few statistics to consider before resigning yourself to a life of opioid addiction:
- About 2.1 million Americans have an addiction disorder associated with opioids.
- Around 25 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids eventually abuse them.
- Between 8 to 12 percent of patients prescribed opioids develop a full blown opioid disorder.
- Roughly 20,000 people start using heroin every year in an effort to escape their opioid addiction – or to supplement it when they can’t get enough prescription meds,
The simple fact remains: opioid painkillers are dangerous. They even use opioids to wean addiction from other opioids!
Let’s say you’ve managed to dodge an opioid addiction while on a regimen of pain meds. Does this mean you’re done with the risk?
Like any drug, prescription pain medication comes with a slew of potential side effects. According to a study published in Pain Physician, “Common side effects of opioid administration include sedation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, physical dependence, tolerance, and respiratory depression.”
Tolerance can occur after prolonged use of a drug, when your normal dose doesn’t have the same effects anymore. Most doctors are hesitant to increase the dosage or frequency as this is a sign of future dependence. Additionally, a higher dose could mean a higher risk of experiencing potentially devastating side effects.
This is all to say that opioid pain medications can be useful in alleviating pain in the short term, but are the long term physical, emotional, and financial costs really worth it?
Insurance and the Long Term Ramifications of Prescription Medication for Pain Relief
With the right insurance, it might seem like the cost of chronic pain medication isn’t that bad. It might even be cheap enough for you to rejoice and be grateful. However, every dollar you aren’t paying is left for the insurance company. But why should you care? It’s not like they’re a nonprofit taking care of cute puppies and babies. They’re a slimy insurance company! Stick it to the man, right?
Maybe not. While we might not pay for the full prescription now, we all end up paying more in the long run.
According to a study published in the Journal of Managed Care & Specialty Pharmacy, “The total costs of prescription medications prescribed for pain were $17.8 billion annually in the United States.” Most of that money comes from the insurance companies (who get it from our premiums). And as long as pharmaceutical companies continue to charge outrageous prices for the drugs, the cost of insurance will continue to go up.
According to an annual report by Kaiser Family Foundation, the average annual premium for a family in the United States has increased from $5,769 in 1999 to $20,627 in 2019. This is an increase of 258 percent in only 20 years.
To help put this into perspective, the rate at which insurance costs are rising easily outpaces both inflation and wage increases.
Money is slowly draining from our pockets!
CBD Offers a Safe, Natural Alternative Medication for Pain Relief
A study by the University of Michigan looked at the effects of cannabidiol (CBD) on fibromyalgia pain. Of the 878 participants who used CBD, 70 percent of them used CBD as a substitute for their usually prescribed painkiller. And many of the participants reported that they were able to reduce or completely eliminate the use of opioids as a result of introducing CBD into their routines.
Not only had these participants found a natural alternative to prescription pain medication, but CBD is cheaper, safer for the body, and poses no risk for addiction!
Only you can decide the best way to manage chronic pain. But before you commit to a regimen of opioids or other prescription pain medication, take the time to consider the costs (both financial and physical). Then compare those costs to pure, natural, lab-tested CBD. For many pain sufferers, the answer is clear: CBD is safer, natural, and more cost effective.