As successful as I became these past years, the very harsh and stark reality of my clients’ positions and lives sank in more than ever. Seven clients, relatives of clients, family members of clients, friends, and acquaintances died. Not from age, infirmity, or natural causes, but from opioid overdoses.
I know. You are sick of hearing about it. I was too. It does not affect my practice. I don’t know any people like that, right? So why all the hubbub, bub? Well, these issues directly affect your practice; there is no other easier way to say it. In fact, it is a practice altering moment.
It started slowly. A client’s son committed suicide at 17 years old. A client arrested multiple times for multiple offenses. Another client’s son found dead. I knew the family for 20 years. The son of a client after two bouts with the criminal justice system was dead. Other clients are having problems coping. From the guy who fell off a ladder and the laborer to those suffering from herniated discs and dealing with the aftereffects of motor vehicle accidents.
I live in the suburbs. I prosecute claims to help people get money for pain and suffering, lost wages, current and future medical care and expenses, lump sum settlements. I defend them if accused. Now it began to sink in. Their pain, despair, limited monies, and medication difficulties. The wait of litigation. Being out of work for weeks, months, years. Severe injuries never experienced before. Then, after a client had been through their medication prescriptions and could not get them refilled—or worse yet, could not get them at all, so they found a cheap antidote: stronger drugs that are often laced commonly with Fentanyl, which can and often does kill.
The practice of law was never quite like this. What class did they teach compassion for substance abuse in? What room and professor did they tell you to go to when your friends and clients are dying in mass proportions greater than ever before? They did not and still do not. The crisis did not exist. So now, what do you do?
Knowledge is key, as they say and teach. More people are dying each year of heroin overdoses than died in all of the years the Vietnam War occurred. Heroin across the country, especially in Philadelphia, is amongst the cheapest and most potent anywhere. It costs one-third the amount of a high dosage prescription painkiller. And if you think it is just a bad person at the core, you are wrong. The intensity and addiction rate of high-end painkillers is staggering. Overprescribed and is left unchecked by many, from doctors to the pharmaceutical companies. From simple dental procedures, surgeries, or short-term medical actions to prescriptions for living medical providers, those who stay on these drugs for a short time experience a high percentage of addiction. Addicts are not strangers. And in our profession, they can be you, your secretary, staffers, family, friends, and most importantly, clients.
Did you know that America has only 10 percent of the world’s population yet uses 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone and 85 percent of the world’s oxycodone? The facts are sobering.
Just ask the Drug Enforcement Administration. Under-staffed, often misunderstood, underappreciated, sometimes under-respected, they provide many free services to help anyone, anytime, anywhere, with partnerships with many agencies to help answer and heed the call. And they do it on a limited budget. Now armed with awareness, the wise attorney asks, “How does this affect me? What should I be wary of in workers compensation claims? Or for that matter, in any case?”
Does a client who is regularly using prescription pain medications pose a risk to your case, the recovery, and the insurance carriers fighting you? Absolutely. Or does a witness for an insurance company who is a so-called independent medical examiner understand what they are passing opinions on when it comes to your client? Your client will be branded as some type of junkie, and if you are a defendant, you better investigate your own witnesses before pointing a finger. Is a judge of any kind going to understand why your client needed the medications, how many they were on, who prescribed them, where they got them, what dosages? Was the client seeing more than one doctor and receiving multiple scripts? For how long? Do the other physicians know? Will a judge be concerned with using medications both pre- and post-surgery? Your client’s credibility is at stake, and a good attorney will illustrate these issues to the court.
Both sides should make sure to read the medical records you are sent in volumes from a physician’s office. Read the narratives. Read the IME report. Run your clients information on the free local, county, state, and federal websites to check their criminal records. Pay a few dollars for an investigative report. Ask your clients the hard questions. Was there a long-standing unrelated issue, or was it only for a period of time? What were the triggers? As a judge, do the same. Have knowledge, get drug training education, learn about the medications, and read cautiously. Marijuana laced with bad Fentanyl can kill the same as prescription medicine or heroin.
In the end, everyone deserves respect. Do not refer to the person an addict; refer to them as an individual in recovery. Be wary that this problem cannot be cured in rehabilitation in 30 days. It is often a lifelong struggle. Do not brand the behavior and person merely because you can. Treat everyone with dignity and decency, and you will do fine. Ask the hard questions at the right time because you need to. The profession is a nobler one with you and our clients in it, so act just, kind, and nonjudgmental. In the end, prescription medication is as easy to access as looking in your medicine cabinet. Saving your client, friend, or family may be only a few questions away.
Andrew J. Edelberg Esq. is a practicing attorney in Eddystone, PA, with 20 years’ experience in personal injury, workers compensation, criminal defense, and domestic matters. He is a fall 2017 graduate of the Philadelphia Field Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Citizen’s Academy.
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