More than 16,000 Americans die each year from prescription opioid overdoses, with a disproportionate number of deaths attributed to methadone. Now, reports Stateline, the federal government is calling on states to consider removing methadone from the list of preferred drugs used as pain relievers for Medicaid patients. This proposal is part of a White House initiative to stop the nation's prescription drug abuse epidemic. The evidence of harm associated with using methadone for pain is clear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that while methadone accounts for just 2 percent of opioid pain reliever prescriptions, the drug is responsible for nearly one-third of prescription opioid overdose deaths.
From 1999 to 2010, as the use of methadone for pain increased, so too did the extent of associated harms. CDC found overdose deaths associated with methadone for pain increased nearly six-fold in that time, jumping from 784 deaths to 4,577. The unique properties of methadone distinguish it from other opioids. Pain relief ends sooner than the drug's effects on respiratory and cardiac systems. Because the pain returns before the body has fully metabolized the drug, patients may be tempted to take more, putting them at risk of overdose and death from respiratory depression or heart-beat abnormalities.