Knoxville disabled man struggles to get painkiller prescription

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – A disabled Knoxville man dependent on opioids to function is finding it difficult to legally acquire the painkillers he needs.

The after effects of polio have been a part Ralph Hayes’ life for 63 years. He first contracted the crippling disease before his first birthday. Polio was once one of the most feared diseases in America. The virus that spreads from person to person affected thousands of children.

By 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinated the first “polio pioneer” with the vaccine that carries his name. A year later, the Salk vaccine was declared “safe and effective” as nearly every child in America was inoculated. Polio left Hayes’ right leg one and three quarter inches shorter than the left leg.

“Yes, the polio has affected me my entire lifespan. I’ve not had a normal, never had a normal life,” said Hayes.

He’s also endured nine knee operations over the last 60 years. He’s now unable to use his leg brace because of excruciating pain from what’s called post-polio syndrome. Few people in developed countries get polio these days thanks to the vaccine, but according to some studies, lots of people who had polio at a young age experience certain effects of the disease later.

“Right now I’m having pain 24 hours a day. It varies during the day,” he said.

For the last six years, Hayes says he had been able to control his pain with opioids prescribed by his primary physician. On Social Security disability, Hayes’ health insurance is with BlueCare, but his doctor, he says, quit the BlueCare system in mid-summer.

“Evidently BlueCare and my doctor could not reach an agreement. Therefore, it caused his entire BlueCare patient caseload to all of a sudden – they had no doctor anymore,” said Hayes.

Faced with one of the highest rates of painkiller use in the nation, Tennessee passed the Prescription Safety Act a few years ago that requires all doctors who prescribe painkillers to register with the state. Hayes believes his doctor opted to leave the BlueCare network to avoid the extra headache of dealing with the database he’d have to prepare in prescribing those painkillers.

“You have to go out and start all over again from square one,” said Hayes. He says he’s been trying to find a new doctor, but with no success.

As suggested by the Prescription Safety Act, Hayes says he went the whole route of using non-opioid drugs, as prescribed by his doctor, but they didn’t work, he said. Hayes is considered opioid-dependent because it allows him to function. In early September, Hayes had only a few opioid pain-relief pills left and no doctor’s appointment set up at the time.

“I just would like to get back on my medications and live the remaining, however much time I have left in my life, pain free like a normal human being, so I can do what normal people do,” he said.

Hayes says, if possible, he would like a non-opioid alternative, but those prescribed in the past were ineffective. He says the opioid medications are the only treatments that give him any quality of life. A month later, he’s finally seen a new doctor, and soon he hopes to have an appointment with a pain specialist.

“You can’t just throw somebody off this medication and not provide a means for them to keep on getting the medication. There should not be a break in their routine. They’re forgetting the handicapped people like myself who get caught in the mix,” he said.

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