A new law aimed at reducing prescription and heroin overdoses has some wondering if it’s the reason their pain medication is being cut.
Richard Matthews says for the last six months, his life has changed dramatically because his pain medication has been reduced.
"I don’t have enough medication to get my body to say, 'I will move,'" Matthews said.
Originally, Matthews was on a monthly regimen of 180 pills of Oxycontin, 180 pills of oxycodone, and 120 pills of Opana. Now, his medication has been reduced to 120 pills each of Oxycontin and oxycodone per month at the same strength, and no more Opana.
"I can’t be fixed. I have degenerative bones in my back," explained Matthews.
He says major surgery on his back, along with his diagnoses of osteoarthritis and lymphedema, and a hip replacement over the years, have made high doses of pain medication a must for him.
"I can’t even keep myself alive with what I am getting now," said Matthews.
With his permission, we reached out to Matthews' doctor, but he declined to comment on why the medication reduction was necessary.
However, the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters discussed painkiller cocktails like Matthews' with a different physician, Dr. Craig Allen, who warned that they aren’t sustainable long-term and lead some people down a dark road.
"They often end up using heroin," said Allen. "Heroin is much less expensive and it is very plentiful in the United States right now."
A new law hopes to put a dent in both heroin and prescription drug dependency. State Sen. Terry Gerratana explained what used to be voluntary is now mandatory.
"Now under the new law, this will be monitored," said Gerratana. "Pharmacists, as well as those prescribers, those in our community, will be reporting."
Prescribers will now be required to immediately review a patient’s record in a statewide database for anything more than a 72-hour supply of a controlled substance.
"We will know right away if there is a problem," said Gerratana.
But will added oversight change some physicians' habits?
"We probably will see a reduction in the prescriptions being written," said Allen.
"Providers know that they have to be accountable, and so therefore, they are probably scrutinizing a lot more of what they are prescribing and to whom," explained Gerratana.
However, if people are flagged in the system and their medication is cut, will it put them at risk of making that jump to heroin?
"They are going to need help," said Gerratana.
Ernie Voelkl has been clean for nine years, but kicking his addiction to heroin and pain medication was an uphill battle.
"I was on the streets and I was using drugs and robbing people," said Voelkl.
It started with Percocet after hernia surgery.
"I actually went through a whole script in probably three days," said Voelkl. "I called the doctor and said I lost it and he gave me another script right away."
Months later, Voelkl received a second operation and that meant more pain medication.
"I had complained to the doctor that it wasn’t enough," said Voelkl. "So then he gave me Vicodin."
When the prescriptions ran out, he turned to the streets and Oxycontin, and then to heroin.
"'You should just do heroin. It’s cheaper.' And you know, that is how I started the heroin run," said Voelkl.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 45 percent of people addicted to heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers.
"In the state of Connecticut, in 2013, there were 490 deaths due to opioid addiction," said Gerratana.
The CDC adds that states play a key role in prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts in opioid addiction.
But Voelkl said it’s ultimately the people using opioids who are instrumental in making change possible.
"It was either die or do something different," said Voelkl.
Voelkl has two jobs now and even works to help addicted teens get off drugs. He credits his nine years of sobriety to his mother, his sponsor, and his church family.
Connecticut has a number of resources to help with addiction, including the following:
The new law we discussed also makes it much easier to get the drug Naloxone, which helps to prevent people from overdosing on opioids.