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New York State Prisoners Sue to Get Their Pain Medications Back

by Kevin Bliss

Eighteen prisoners filed suit against the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on September 2, 2019, alleging denial of access to vital pain medication necessary for the treatment of their chronic medical conditions.

The DOCCS implemented a policy in 2017 that requires senior prison medical staff to sign off on commonly used prescriptions in an effort to better monitor and restrict those drugs.

DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said the agency is “committed to battling the opioid epidemic and stemming the tide of addiction which has greatly affected incarcerated individuals in the Department’s custody.”

In their complaint, the prisoners allege that the added approval of the senior medical staff is rarely given, affecting hundreds of prisoners with legitimate medical needs.

Pain management is complicated, said NYU Langone Health clinical assistant professor Lipi Roy. Healthcare professionals must balance physical and emotional trauma with possible misuse or abuse, and their training does not deal with this topic sufficiently.

The two main drugs cited in the lawsuit were Ultram and Neurontin. Ultram uses an opioid painkiller while Neurontin contains gabapentin, which targets nerve pain and is believed to increase the “high” delivered by opioids. Gabapentin is not a federally controlled substance, but it is found more often in the bloodstream of opioid overdoses, raising concerns.

Angel Hernandez, one of the incarcerated plaintiffs, has a degenerative spinal condition that causes pain, numbness and burning sensations. He stated that he used Ultram and Neurontin for years to manage the pain until both were cut off in 2017.

Wayne Stewart, another plaintiff, is paralyzed from the waist down from a 2003 shooting that left five bullets in his body, including his head. His morphine prescription was changed to a less potent opioid, Percocet. That medication was then discontinued for no apparent reason. He claims that he now lives with chronic, untreated pain.

According to the prisoners’ complaint, “The wholesale denial of these medications especially affects an already vulnerable population: one that includes patients with severe spinal and neurological issues, phantom pain from amputations, multiple sclerosis and serious, chronic pain.” PLN will report on future developments in this case. See: Allen v. New York State DOCCS, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 7:19-cv-08173-UA. 

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Sources: sandiegouniontribune.com, nypost.com