The untold story of how Utah doctors and Big Pharma helped drive the national opioid epidemic

“We have to acknowledge that the experiment of using opioids for chronic pain is a failed one,” Anna Lembke, chief of addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine.

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  • Harrison Bergeron Holladay , UT
    May 25, 2018 8:08 p.m.

    I thought this was a thoughtful, insightful, balanced article. But wow! Some of the comments! Socialized medicine is the answer; vaccines are bad too; pot will solve the problem, etc.

    The fact is that opioids are powerful, addictive pain killers. Another fact is there are patients with tremendous chronic pain: 100 million American adults live with chronic pain, many of them with pain so bad it wrecks their work, their families, their mental health and their lives. The truth is that most of the people in this piece were or are just trying to help these patients. People with chronic paid are 100% more likely to commit suicide; an outcome just as bad or worse (they still died, but in tremendous agony).

    Drug manufactures are not the boogey man and most doctors aren't Dr. Kevorkian. Here is another fact, more powerful, non-addictive pain meds will come from the research these "evil" pharmaceutical companies are doing. Socialized medicine produces almost no innovation, because there is no money for research. Vaccines have done more for human health than anything else besides clean water. And if you think dope the panacea, Californy is the place ya otta be!

  • TJ Eagle Mountain, UT
    Nov. 21, 2017 8:49 a.m.

    This makes as much sense as suing gun manufacturers for making a gun that someone uses in a crime 10 years later. The Gun did not commit the crime. On the same note, The prescription drug manufacturer did not commit the crime here. The user made the decision to use the drug outside the prescribed use / dose / length of time. I guarantee that everyone who has a problem with addiction to painkillers lied, cheated, stold etc. to get the vast majority of the drugs, both legal and illegal, they use(d) to feed their addiction.
    Lawyers get rich on things like this. No one else wins.

  • Paul Coelho, MD Eugene, OR
    Oct. 29, 2017 7:18 p.m.

    Great reporting, thank you. Can you please do a follow up article on the failure of the Utah
    Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing's failure to remove this bad actor - note 20 deaths! - from practice? How, does this occur?

    Hopefully the multiple civil cases against this charlatan will do what the medical board and DEA failed to. My heart goes out to the families of all those people Webster - and Fine - harmed.

  • call_me_ishmael Roy, UT
    Oct. 27, 2017 6:26 a.m.

    I am a former patient of Dr. Webster. He saved my life. Sadly we rarely hear the stories of those for whom continued opioid use allows them to function in life. I have a rare and severe disease in the tissues that surround the spinal chord. It is EXTREMELY painful. Dr. Webster and his staff introduced me to medication that makes the pain tolerable yet allows me to function in life. I was not able to work. Now I can. I have purpose. I can function as a father, husband, and member of the community extremely well. Without the proper medication the pain, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, had worn me down.

    MANY like me remain quiet. We don't want to attract attention that could lead to people robbing our homes or politicians using us to further careers.

    I understand the pain of many whose lives have been impacted horribly by addiction. Our nation needs to address this as the public health crisis that it is rather than just building more jails. Jails get votes and money into campaign wallets.

    I am profoundly grateful to Dr. Webster. Let's not through the baby out with the bath water. These are extremely complex issues.

  • Patricia Silverman Wauchula, FL
    Oct. 27, 2017 5:39 a.m.

    addiction at its core is all about opportunity or the lack there of, and the exit from opiates is cannabis which is illegal only because of the same lies used to dupe us that opiates are safe, check the internet stop believing the FDA which is bought and paid for by big pharma. As for big pharmas pills being necessary that is also a lie they are liver toxic as they are synthesized from petroleum they treat symptoms and give you more so they can add more pills, all planned and socialized time to wake up people

  • wazzup Cottonwood Heights, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 11:32 p.m.

    The Feds are culpable as well. Doctor and hospital are scored on HCAHPS which is a patient satisfaction survey. One metric is pain management. Do the providers subconsciously over prescribe to 'satisfy' patients? I have spoken to some docs and they say it's a very valid concern. I have written to Hatch and Lee and no response. The Feds need to remove that metric!

  • Just saying 7 Indianapolis, IN
    Oct. 26, 2017 6:04 p.m.

    Problem in story is to always assume dependency always leads to addiction. Chronic pain is real. Treatment options few. If we abolish opioids for moral outrage then we need to accept assisted suicide to help those people with miserable pain filled lives pass. Seems extreme to deny treatment based on a moral outrage. This is Prohibition all over again. How did that help reduce drunkeness? It created untold other, worse problems. The government has zero reason to interfere with patient doctor relations.

  • kjaffa Sandy, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 5:58 p.m.

    I read this article with mixed feelings as I suffer from severe chronic pain and Life Tree Pain Clinic has changed my life so that I have a functional life although it is limited. In an effort to prevent abuse, please do not make it even more difficult to get treatment. It is already very restrictive to get my prescriptions refilled. While I am sadden to hear of those whose treatments detrimental to them, I am thankful for Life Tree for giving me a life. I have severe chronic pain as a result of a severe case of the shingles, before the vaccine, due to a reduce immune system as a result of aggressive chemotherapy. Please to not legislate my life away and leave me rolling in pain 24/7. I support efforts to reduce abuse, but please allow those with severe chronic pain. Laws already make hard to get my medicine.

  • CaliCougar American Fork, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 5:20 p.m.

    USAlover - Salt Lake City, UT,

    The pain you describe sounds very much like Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome (CPPS). The experience you describe sounds very much like the one I had. The approach you used to address it is practically the same approach I used once I was able to determine the cause of my pain. Some refer to CPPS as a "headache in the pelvis". It is caused largely by muscle tightness and inflammation, much of which can be attributed to stress and anxiety.

    I'm glad you have it under control.

  • The_Real_Moondogg Pleasant Grove, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 5:19 p.m.

    Everyone blaming people who are addicted to pain pills and saying they should take more personal accountability for their addiction should ask themselves if they've ever been to the doctor for anything and, if so, if they followed the doctors instruction.

    I'm sure there are people whose addictions started with recreational use of pills, but the people who developed addictions while being treated for pain were probably initially only following the doctors instructions. If the doctor prescribes an antibiotic, we trust them and take it, right? Well, for people who are looking for relief from pain, when the doctor prescribed them pain meds they probably trusted the doctors and did as instructed.

    Blaming someone who unknowingly started using a highly addictive substance under a doctors care and now battles an addiction is on par with blaming a person that's been shot for being in the same place as the shooter. Of course, we're all experts on everyone else's situation, right? So we'll keep on offering our unsolicited enlightened opinions on things that we don't understand and that have nothing to do with us.

  • EDM Castle Valley, Utah
    Oct. 26, 2017 5:12 p.m.

    @ Say No to BO

    “The opioid ‘crisis’ is the direct result of Obamacare.”

    Good grief. Our Republican-led congress can obsess incessantly over the healthcare tax on the wealthy, but it cannot produce one piece of simple legislation aimed at protecting Americans.

    The opiod crisis is the direct result of profit-making where there should be none.

  • All American Herriman, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 4:42 p.m.

    "A few seeds, water, and sunlight" is not the way to use marijuana for medication. Straight from the plant marijuana alters the brain chemistry. Some people are "happy and munchy" after taking it and many are too high to drive. A specific process is used to make medical marijuana so that it helps with pain and doesn't make a person "high". Yes, to medical marijuana - no to recreational grow-your-own weed. Huge difference.

  • Grumpy Grandpa Sandy, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 3:49 p.m.

    I am glad DN published this article as it stare the monster in the face.

    In the late 90's and again in the early 2000's I had several major surgeries and was offered all kinds of opioids for pain. After a few pills I threw them away because of the way my mind felt afterwards. I would rather deal with the pain.

    I had two close friends involved in accidents. Opioids could not reduce their pain. With the knowledge of their LDS bishops, they tried marijuana and found relief.

    Neither became addicted to marijuana, but both lived with the stigma of a "junkie" by those who knew them only casually.

    I would like to see further research into medical marijuana and allow its use as an alternative to opioids.

    It can be an option in the search for pain treatments, provided counseling is given and stress/psychological issues are first addressed.

    (I'm grumpy because I was told to stop spoiling the grandkids)

  • Stiching Together Bountiful, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 3:17 p.m.

    When I had surgery I told everyone who walked into my room that I am sensitive to narcotics. When I had major pain I was put on morphine drip. The pain went away. When they turned off the drip they told me to push the button when I had more pain, but by then the pain had resolved. Unfortunately the dose had been so high that I went through massive withdrawals. I decided never again would I let them do that to me. Doctors still have a hard time when I tell them I can't take pain meds. I don't even want to imagine what would have happened if I had been on stronger pain meds.

    Then when my husband had surgery I told the doctor that he didn't take pain meds and that the dose was too high. He blew me off. We started with half the dose and still it was too much. It took two days before he decided that it was better to ride out the pain then to feel the way he felt.

    The doctors prescribe the meds the way the pharm companies tell them they should. Yet both are at fault. The doctors for not doing their own research and for not listening to their patients and noticing problems and pharm companies for pushing these kinds of drugs when they knew the risks.

  • Jeremiah S Fielding, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 2:59 p.m.

    This is very sad. I watched my mother deal with crippling chronic pain for years before she died, and she had no quality of life.

    Look folks: there is a powerful element in this state that is absolutely opposed to allowing these poor people to grow a plant--a plant! at their homes that treats chronic pain, nausea, and cannot cause an overdose. No need for Big Pharma and their messed up incentivization of pills, pills, pills. A few seeds, water, and sunlight. Yet we can't make any progress toward helping these folks because of it.

    This is a moral issue, and not in the ways that many Utahans might think. I highly recommend signing the petition at the Utah Patients Coalition website to put medical marijuana legalization on the ballot as a citizen's initiative. It is possible to get patients help while controlling access to prevent abuse by others.

    I was skeptical for most of my life about this. Please--talk to a chronic pain patient. Ask them to tell their story. Ask them if they have tried marijuana and if it has helped them.

  • Say No to BO Mapleton, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 2:05 p.m.

    Everyone from Trump to the Deseret News has this all wrong. The opioid "crisis" is the direct result of Obamacare. Rehab treatment and pill payments are all part of mandatory coverage dictated by HHS.

    Where there's money, there's more pills.

    Thanks again, BHO.

  • LarryBirdman New York, NY
    Oct. 26, 2017 1:37 p.m.

    John Kapoor of Insys Therapeutics fame was arrested.

    Ted Stanley was a Utah doctor affiliated with the University of Utah and Anesta who passed away not long ago. He was involved with Kapoor and other companies who peddled easy access opioid medications to consumers. Stanley was one of the most notorious drug kingpin doctors of easy access fentanyl and opioid addicting meds. These "innovative meds" were used to spike opioid addictions and encouraged overdosing.

  • FrustratedinUtah Clearfield, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 1:10 p.m.

    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is HIPAA not HIPPA. There is no such thing as HIPPA.

  • USAlover Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 1:07 p.m.

    5 years ago, after 2 military deployments, I was told that a "pain" in my groin area was Prostatits. I was put on antibiotics for SIX MONTHS! Pain didn't go away. I was then tested for prostate cancer...I'm 42 years-old. Negative.

    The pain lasted 2 years. Awful. Nobody could really diagnose anything BUT they kept giving me medicines. Soon the pain moved to my lower back. I was diagnosed with a herniated disk (MRI) and was told that I needed immediate surgery.

    At about the same time, I retired from the military and "felt like I needed to just relax". I took 6 months off. I drove the ball cart at a local driving range. I started doing yoga and learned meditation. I focused on what was going on emotionally instead of the physical pain. I played with my kids, relearned how to fish and slowed down.

    After 5 years of chronic pain, I am no longer in pain. I just don't think we realize the impact of stress/anxiety/emotions have on physical pain. And going to the doctor for pain will always result in a rx and some advice (most of the time well-intended), but wrong. It sounds crazy, but when I stopped going to doctors, I actually got better.

  • _Moondogg_ Pleasant Grove, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 12:39 p.m.

    I’ve known several people with opioid addictions. I’ve had two close friends who have overdosed on pain meds and died. Sadly, this isn’t unique. A lot of Utahns know someone or, worse, are themselves addicted to pain pills. They see no harm in taking pills and justify their behavior because it’s “prescribed by a doctor”. They deny they have an addiction, though they all know they do but think they can manage it. They become accustomed to their life as pill poppers and seem to think being addicted to opiates is better than being in pain.

    Funnily enough, most the people I know with pill problems wouldn’t dream of trying marijuana as an alternative to opiates because it’s a “drug” and has a stigma attached to it. They’ll gladly live their lives in a zombie-like state and let their addiction control their life, all while denying they even have a problem, rather than try alternative means of pain relief. It’s saddens me that every time I see them I know that their time is limited because of their addiction.

  • Grammiesinn Ivins, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 12:30 p.m.

    I have had chronic back pain for
    nearly twenty years, through no fault of my own. I have used narcotic pain relievers for for most of that time, with beaks in between for different reasons. I have closely monitored my own use, when did I take the drugs, when did I need them most etc. my husband also watched what I took and made sure I kept my appointments with my pain clinic which monitored me closely. Recently I moved to Ohio for 18 months, not realizing I had stepped into a crisis state. I found indifference, fear. Five months of constant pain, I had no withdrawal symptoms, and no help. I was close to going back home when I found a clinic with compassion. I will be monitored closely, but treated with respect.
    I do not trivialize the pain of families who lost loved ones. But those of us with chronic pain would also like to come out of the shadows, not looked at as drug abusers or potential addicts, and there are thousands of us. Someday write an article on us, the other side, and use the same compassion. Please.

  • ZION4MAN Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 12:29 p.m.

    Some lessons to be learned here.
    First, everyone should insist that they have a HIPPA Release form on file with all your spouses physicians, hospitals and other health care providers. That way you will not be "stonewalled" from knowing what is going on with your spouse.
    Secondly, when you suspect your spouse has become addicted to a substance, don't let them stay in denial. Do what the alcoholics have done for years. Get family and friends together and hold an "Intervention". Insist that they go to rehab. Sure they might be mad at you......but wouldn't that be better that than you coming home one day to find them dead on the floor?
    Or worse, they have driven into someone else and killed their family?

  • USAlover Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 12:21 p.m.

    It's high time in America to finally learn (as many in the Eastern world have) that most chronic pain is caused by STRESS.

    The mind-body connection is real, and most Americans don't even know what it means.

    When I stopped going to doctors, and addressed my phantom pains as stress-related....they went away. And I have several friends and family members who experienced the same thing.

    In the meantime, I guess we'll continue to keep throwing pills and creams and oils and unnecessary surgeries at all our ills. Whatever is vogue....

  • High5 Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 12:04 p.m.

    "Like many patients who ended up at LifeTree, Webb suffered chronic pain from conditions that were hard to diagnose. Looking back, Bruce thinks she might have had postpartum depression. She often complained of crippling migraine headaches and was eventually diagnosed with a disorder known as temporomandibular joint disorder, in which pain radiates from the jaw."

    As a health care provider, I invite everybody to consider a new paradigm: most chronic pain that cannot be diagnosed clinically is driven by emotional phenomenon. Dr. John Sarno MD, head of the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation at NYU, called this pain syndrome Tension Myoneural Syndrome, and has said for 30 years that doctors are inaccurately diagnosing pain syndromes. As one who has largely cured himself from chronic pain, I can ardently concur that Dr.s are not diagnosing pain accurately, and it is certainly NOT a "disease". Until the prevailing medical model in America changes and accepts that most chronic pain is brought on my emotions, we'll continue to see narcotic abuse, despondent patients and a general lack of trust in health care providers.

  • LarryBirdman New York, NY
    Oct. 26, 2017 11:43 a.m.

    Utah is well known for aiding the opioid epidemic because it was the home of the “lollipop fentanyl” product which was marketed like candy to potential drug abusers which even targeted young people at a very young age. It started out as a company called Anesta and it caught on fast with many repeat prescriptions by patients who no longer needed it.

  • wide_awake Montpelier, ID
    Oct. 26, 2017 10:44 a.m.

    It's good to see DN do this piece, thank you. It couldn't come soon enough for those who have died or suffered from the shady side of the pain management industry.

    Just curious, has DN investigated whether Dr. Webster has contributed much to the campaign coffers of the Utah congressional delegation? It'd be important for us to know that.

  • MOMS Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 10:25 a.m.

    From the story: "Most are dying from heroin or a synthetic analogue called fentanyl,"

    How does that fact lead to a national discussion about refusing medicine for Americans in severe pain?

  • 1covey Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 10:08 a.m.

    Witch doctor, witch doctor/ sell me a cure/ a fancy prescription that's sure/ red, green/ or blue chartreuse pill/ any color at all/ if it cures all my ills//Diet, you say ?/ that's die with a 't'/ no way !/ exercise, walk or run - that's no fun !/ live a lif e that's good / like you should ?/ Ha !! / I want the 'good life' in spades /Don't tell me about Hades/ so - gimme somethin', Doc ! Somethin' Pharmacology has come a long way; it has much further to go. Maybe we have become so reliant on medicine that we expect too much from it. And, like other areas affecting the public, I'd like the financial records available for public scrutiny to see exactly where the money goes.

  • Jbejarano Eagle Mountain, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 10:03 a.m.

    Sen Orrin Hatch would never have anything to do with Big Pharma lobbyists, right?

  • Strider303 American Fork, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 10:01 a.m.

    I’m not sure I understand the problem. People with chronic pain seek relief from doctors who prescribe medication (a narcotic). A side effect is possible addiction. We deem the addiction a problem/crime and restrict the patient’s long-term access to the medication.

    The patient denied access to a clinically prepared medication turns to the black market for a, hopefully, similar substance whose composition and preparation are unknown. This is deemed criminal behavior.

    Hang wringing ensues, conferences are held, papers are written, politicians pontificate yet nothing of substance is done regarding the chronic pain, the core problem.

    Oh we also distribute new needles, at government expense, to IV drug users, to aid and abet their purchase and use of illegal narcotics. We don’t “stigmatize" their habit nor do we encourage them to seek “treatment”. We believe that the monies these people use to purchase their mainline drug of choice is most likely the result of criminal behavior, i.e. petty theft, prostitution, etc..

    I don't advocate legalizing narcotics for “recreational use” but think that some controlled use by chronic pain suffers without penalty could be developed.

  • TMR Los Angeles, CA
    Oct. 26, 2017 9:46 a.m.

    Thanks for an excellent article. An interesting follow-up could probe the political side of the problem - the relaxation of regulation and how the influence of Pharma on lawmakers has contributed to the problem of opioid addiction.

  • Owl Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 9:41 a.m.

    Excellent investigative reporting. The long overdue scrutiny of Big Pharma should not be an excuse to raise doubts that are not evidence-based concerning immunization practices.

  • Meckofahess Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 9:40 a.m.

    @Hutterite:

    You adroitly stated: "Hippocrates has been rewritten to commence "First, make a buck..."
    It is the wrong motive front to back, top to bottom, for health care".

    As a healthcare professional, I couldn't agree with you more. I love these drug commercials on TV that tout that they "can extend your life" and other related deceptive language - but they don't tell us that the drug treatment often will cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars!

    Open the website "utahsright.com" and look at the salaries of the doctors and administrators at the University of Utah and tell me how these salaries are justifiable when many working people are struggling to pay utility bills, taxes, and mortgage payments?

    Citizens, we need to abandon the American model of Healthcare and follow the lead of other advanced countries like those in Scandinavia, England, Canada and others and move to a Universal Healthcare system model that is much cheaper and more effective than ours. Don't be misled by the drug companies, hospital corporations and many physicians who tell you that our system is working. Yes, it is working for them, not us!

  • Mainly Me Werribee, 00
    Oct. 26, 2017 9:08 a.m.

    I'm still in shock I can;t believe that DS just did an in-depth article against Doctors and Big Pharma. I never thought that I would live to see the day!

    So now what about the dangers of Psychotropics, vaccines and all the other myriad of deadly and over prescribed medications?? What about the people who have died, committed suicide, developed autism and suffered all sorts of problems at the hands of these so called good intended Doctors and $$Big Pharma?

    I still can't believe that I have seen an article on DS with Big Pharma written on the tittle. Well done on reporting the truth and not just more of the same old fluff and propaganda!

  • at long last. . . Kirksville , MO
    Oct. 26, 2017 8:27 a.m.

    Does the absence of personal responsibility play any part in this problem? I guess not. . . it is all the fault of external sources which the individual has no power to control. . .

  • John Brown 1000 Laketown, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 8:27 a.m.

    Deseret News,

    You have a mistake in the article. You write that "Last year, roughly 64,000 people in America died from opioid or heroin overdoses, outpacing every other cause of death."

    It is not every other cause of death. Go to the CDC's leading causes of death page. You'll see heart disease at 633,842, cancer at 595,930, chronic lower respiratory disease at 155,041, etc.

    Opioids are the leading cause of drug overdose deaths. But not deaths in general.

    Great article. Thanks for this kind of reporting.

  • conservative scientist Lindon, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 8:12 a.m.

    Excellent article. Thanks for publishing. All who are in chronic pain should read this article and the other articles in this series. Those who are family or friends of those in chronic pain should share these articles with those suffering as part of understanding the dangers of opioid pain management options. Sometimes the best of intentions can have disastrous consequences. All should avoid opioid pain medication whenever possible when looking for options to treat chronic pain.

  • Hutterite American Fork, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 7:47 a.m.

    Hippocrates has been rewritten to commence "First, make a buck..."
    It is the wrong motive front to back, top to bottom, for health care.

  • EDM Castle Valley, Utah
    Oct. 26, 2017 7:12 a.m.

    This epidemic is the unacceptable price of for-profit healthcare.

    Where else on earth does a person wake up to TV commercials imploring you to “go ask your doctor (for drugs)”?

    If this epidemic isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. While a Republican-led congress is obsessed (to no avail) with eliminating the healthcare tax on the rich, people just want consumer protections.

  • Egyptian origins Salt Lake City, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 6:48 a.m.

    In 2015 I had a kidney infection. At the emergency room, the doctor told me he had something that will make me feel "good" despite my intense pain. I told him I did not want the drugs and the doctor complied by giving me non-habit forming meds, but warned that I may still experience pain. After receiving the med, the pain was gone with no "good" feeling. I was given the wrong antibiotics, but recovered nonetheless. Dr's are not being taught to cure, but to treat symptoms. That's where the problem lies. There is a major malpractice lawsuit if hospitals weren't protected by the government from such.

  • 7 in a row! Ogden, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 6:47 a.m.

    Big Pharmaceutical Companies have these advantages for their drugs:

    1) Legalized drug distribution systems in every state.

    2) FDA approvals

    3) Never ending commercials/advertisements to ‘educate’ and encourage doctors to prescribe their drugs.

    4) A government and insurance companies that help patients pay for these drugs.

    No wall will stop this epidemic. All the side affects from these drugs make us less productive citizens. We have a country that is medicated and it starts at a young age these days.

    Then a short time after a drug has been approved by the FDA the lawyers start up with their class action cases.

    Bottom line. For real change to happen, each individual must be able to hold their self accountable. If you wait for government to get involved you will have disastrous results as listed above. Supply and demand working well and subsidized by our own taxes.

  • Den Den West Jordan, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 6:24 a.m.

    Money, money, money...

  • JimDabakis slc, UT
    Oct. 26, 2017 5:43 a.m.

    Great reporting. In-depth and bold. Thanks, Jesse Hyde & Daphne Chen. Time to address this crisis head-on.