The opioid crisis is hitting families across the nation regardless of income, race or gender. Lawmakers are no exception. In the past few months, The Hill has talked to a number of House and Senate members who have a personal connection to addiction and the opioid epidemic. This is the fourth in a five-part series presented by Partnership for Safe Medicines.

 

In 2015, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) had begun the fight against opioids as a member of Congress. A year later, her brother was entering the fight in a very different way.

He needed two hip replacements, a procedure that devolved into even more surgeries through the fall and winter. To alleviate the pain, his doctors prescribed high doses of painkillers.

“As the winter [of 2017] wore on, it became more and more obvious that my brother was experiencing substance use disorder, the misuse of medication that was associated with these high doses of opioid medications prescribed by his physician,” Kuster said.

Lawmakers have heard story after story of patients becoming addicted to painkillers after surgery. How to prevent that from happening has become a key question in their response to the opioid epidemic. 

From her work in Congress, Kuster knew of the addictive power of opioids. She’d seen deaths rack up back home in New Hampshire, one of the states hit hardest by the epidemic. The Democrat paired up with the only other New Hampshire congressman, Republican Rep. Frank Guinta, to found the House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force in 2015.

But seeking a national response to opioid abuse was far different than caring for a sibling with an addiction.

She and her three siblings took turns traveling across the country to care for him. They tried to figure out what to do, but, at times, it felt like there wasn’t a right answer.

“[We were] trying to understand, to get good advice from the medical community about what was the best approach for him because he was exhibiting all the characteristics of addiction,” Kuster said. “And it was very complicated by the fact that he needed to continue to have these surgeries.”

She added later: “You deal with trust issues in the family. We didn’t know whether to trust him. I can remember so many phone calls just wanting to believe what he was saying, and then the evidence [of opioid misuse] would prove otherwise.”

The family began exploring treatment options, but it wasn’t easy.

“It was a complex situation because he was medically compromised. ... So he’s walking on a walker — and so some of the treatment facilities wouldn’t take him in that compromised state.

“And yet, the surgeon wouldn’t do further surgery until he had treatment.”

The family began talking to a woman who quickly became an invaluable resource — a retired substance abuse counselor who helped them navigate the treatment and payment world. 

Eventually, Kuster’s brother was admitted to a 28-day residential treatment program last spring, which helped him begin the recovery process.

“We join the thousands, the tens of thousands, of families across the country that are coping with recovery and everything that entails,” Kuster said. “And it's very anxiety-provoking.

“I know now from everything I've learned that the rate of relapse is very high, and so I try to talk to him frequently, try to give support to his family and his support team, try to encourage him to make sure that he stays with his recovery, going to meetings, getting counseling, fulfilling his plan for recovery.”