WASHINGTON — Steve Rummler was a financial planner and musician who was about to marry his high school sweetheart when his addiction to pain medication prescribed for a back injury led him to a fatal overdose.
His mother and fiancee rallied along with more than 500 people Tuesday in a park near the Capitol to call for action against what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the worst drug epidemic in United States history.
Prescriptions for painkillers have nearly tripled in the past two decades, and medications including Vicodin and OxyContin have killed more people than illicit drugs such as cocaine, according to the CDC.
More than 125,000 people have died from overdosing on painkillers in the past 10 years. That figure is more than the number of Americans who died fighting in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the chief medical officer at the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center Phoenix House and president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
The FED UP! Rally organizers and participants called on the Food and Drug Administration and lawmakers to put stronger restrictions on products containing hydrocodone, an opioid that is an ingredient in some prescribed pain medications.
The FDA classifies hydrocodone products as schedule III controlled substances – meaning that those products have lower potential for abuse than drugs or other substances in schedules I and II, and consumers can receive refills.
Rally organizers and participants urged the FDA to move hydrocodone products to schedule II, which would require consumers to go to their doctors every 30 days to evaluate the need for a refill.
Judy Rummler, the chair of the FED UP! Rally steering committee and president of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, said doctors need to prescribe painkillers more cautiously and educate their patients about the medications they are taking.
“Each year, we set a new record for the number of people dying from painkiller overdoses,” Kolodny said. “This is a public health emergency. Yet the response from the federal government has been tragically ineffective.”
Susan Gregory attended the rally holding a poster with a photograph of her son, Dennis, who died of a heroin overdose in 2006 when he was 20.
Dennis had experimented with marijuana in high school and later tried prescription medications like OxyContin and Vicodin. He became addicted and began using heroin because it was cheaper.
“He had cried to me. He was very terrified. He once asked me, ‘Mom, why me? Why was I the one out of all my friends who experimented and tried stuff?’” Gregory said. “He was an honors student and athlete who never wanted to become addicted and never thought that he would.”
Avi Israel told the story of his 20-year-old son, Michael, who took a prescription hydrocodone product because he suffered from Crohn’s Disease, a painful intestinal condition. The doctors who had prescribed the medication intended for the hydrocodone to decrease the amount of intestinal output.
The medications did not successfully treat Michael’s pain, Israel said, but led to an addiction.
“My son was prescribed into addiction by his doctors. When he sought help, it was not available, so he went into the back bedroom and shot himself,” Israel said. “I was the first one to hold my son when he was born, and I was the last one to hold him when he left this world.”
Israel warned that physicians prescribe painkillers “like candy.”
In 2004, the Drug Enforcement Administration presented the FDA with data demonstrating that hydrocodone combination products are the most abused prescription drugs in America. The DEA also demonstrated that hydrocodone has as much abuse potential as morphine or oxycodone, both of which are schedule II drugs.
“FDA has resisted that change,” Kolodny said. “They refused to listen to scientists who demonstrated the data that the abuse potential was equal. They refused to listen to an advisory committee that voted in January 2-to-1 in favor of making this change.”
Members of Congress spoke at the rally to demonstrate their support for the group’s cause.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said too many young people think prescription painkillers are safe because they are prescription medications and try a pill once out of experimentation, only to become addicted. Many people, he said, receive prescriptions for real pain but likewise become addicted.
“This is a dangerous drug. The classification hasn’t caught up to the reality,” Schumer said.