Australia's peak advocacy group for people living with chronic pain will not relent in its call for the federal government to repair the damage done during its rollout of changes to the prescribing of opioids.
Painaustralia chief executive officer Giulia Jones has written to Health Minister Mark Butler, insisting the opioid restrictions rolled out in June 2020 have left large numbers of people living with chronic pain alienated and without the offer of alternative treatments.
"We understand these restrictions were not introduced by Minister Butler," Ms Jones said.
"We accept opioid usage was rising significantly, and action needed to be taken.
"But the fact is, the implementation of the new restrictions was poorly handled, and Minister Butler can and must fix it. Australians in pain deserve this from their new government."
Painaustralia's plea has been supported by Professor Paul Glare, one of Australia's leading pain management researchers and clinicians and a director of the Pain Foundation.
"People who have been on long-term opioids often for decades need special consideration," Professor Glare said.
"The experience overseas is that there have been real harms resulting from the unintended consequences of heavy-handed implementation of these kinds of policies.
"I have been seeing them - patients buying heroin when their pain medications have been suddenly cut off by the authorities and unnecessary hospital admissions - in my clinical practice."
Painaustralia has appealed for an urgent, independent review of how the opioid restrictions were rolled out, saying many consumers were distressed at forced tapering or sudden withdrawal.
"In short, large numbers of Australians who have a legitimate need for opioids have been left in pain, forced off the medication they needed and with no alternative offered by GPs," Ms Jones said.
The Health Minister has confirmed an internal and standard review of the restrictions will be conducted 24 months after the changes were introduced. It will be undertaken by the Therapeutic Goods Association.
While welcoming the review, Painaustralia says it will not solve the problem.
"A standard review will find opioid usage has fallen, and from that conclude that the new regime has been successful," Ms Jones said.
"But this will be of no benefit to the legitimate users who've lost access to their medication or who have not been offered alternatives in the process.
"While opioids needed to be restricted for some users, at every point in the lead-up to these changes, Painaustralia warned the then federal government to include options for alternative treatments at the point of offering to withdraw or taper individuals off opioids and this has not transpired."
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Professor Glare has studied alternative methods and found pain self-management programs are the optimal way to taper opioid dependency.
"Our research has clearly shown that patients need clinical-based assistance and information to help them transition from opioids to other pain management techniques but access to new programs is very limited in Australia," he said.
Painaustralia says one in five Australians live with chronic pain.
To ensure people will not continue to be disadvantaged under the opioid restrictions, the organisation has called on the minister to devise an education campaign with embedded incentivisation for GPs to learn and be able to refer consumers to multi-disciplinary pain management in the primary and community setting.
It also wants Medicare Benefits Schedule item numbers for pain management treatment including chronic pain care plans by GP, telehealth for multidisciplinary pain management teams in a primary care setting, pain educators in community care and GP clinics, and improved access to some specialist procedures.
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