A group of state lawmakers spent Monday morning thinking about pain — specifically, some lesser-known technologies that can treat pain in place of habit-forming opioid medications.
Public hearings on the opioid crisis are expected to take place at the State Capitol just after the start of the new year, but on Monday several legislators listened to presentations and posed some probing questions about pain-fighting technologies with Minnesota connections.
Lawmakers said they were pleased to learn more about the devices with roots in Minnesota’s economy, though their questions expressed both support and healthy skepticism.
How invasive are these therapies compared to oral opioid drugs? How much clinical evidence exists to back them? And will insurers pay higher upfront costs when some individual opioid pills can be had for less than a pack of gum?
“When you look at the overall costs, opioids are not cheap, even though they may look like it at first glance,” Dr. Andrew J. Will, president of the Minnesota Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, said during the session at the Minnesota Senate Building.
Opioids come with so many hidden social and medical costs that “some of these [alternative] procedures we’re talking about, even though they may have a higher upfront cost, pay for themselves within two years,” Will said.
Lawmakers also heard presentations from company executives about devices and therapies made by AtriCure in Minnetonka, Smiths Medical and SpineThera, both of Plymouth, and Boston Scientific, which employs 8,000 people in Arden Hills, Maple Grove and Minnetonka.
Boston Scientific is one of three multinational medical device companies, along with Medtronic and Abbott Laboratories, active in the Minnesota that make minimally invasive spinal cord stimulators to treat pain. Will said that the devices, which use mild electric current to disrupt pain signals, are some of the most “exciting” nonopioid pain treatments. He worked with all three companies; federal records show Will has received a total of $13,000 from them since 2013.
“When I hear about the electricity probes, it sounds really exciting,” said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar. “But what about five years from now? If [patients are] cranking up the juice, if I can say it that way, are they going to do more damage?”
“I think these are so much safer than opioids,” Will said. “They’ve been around for 50 years … I warn patients that the biggest risk is disappointment, if you’ve invested the time and energy to go through this and it doesn’t work. But I’ve never had a patient lost because of a spinal cord stimulator. There is no such thing as an overdose from these.”