Leroy Billman was 19 years old when he lost his right arm in a farming accident.
He says he has suffered from phantom pain sensations ever since.
“Usually it’s a real sharp, shooting, stabbing type of a pain.T he palm of my hand feels like somebody taking a drill bit and a drill and just drilling into my hand,” Billman said.
Billman, now 55, says he has tried many different medications and treatments to ease his pain but the only thing that has proven effective is opiates.
Changes in the law and insurance regulations have led to changes in Billman’s prescriptions.
“The extended-release medication that I took only lasted about eight or nine hours and you can only take two pills a day,” Billman said. “They were giving me another type of medication, another opioid that was a quick release, and it would bridge that three-hour gap in between. Well, they took that away from me pretty quick because with the laws changing they said. We need to get you off of this.”
Dr. Gladstone McDowell, a pain specialist, wants to try Billman on a pain pump that deposits a non-opioid, non-addictive medication directly into the spinal fluid.
“It dispenses medicine just like a soaker hose -a small amount continuously,” McDowell says.
But Billman said his insurance plan wants him to retry cheaper and more conservative treatments like physical therapy.
“Dr. McDowell and I both really just laughed about it and said, ‘well, we’ll do it because we have to’ but I’ve tried that two or three times in the past because that’s what the doctors or someone wanted me to do but it just doesn’t work. I mean there’s nothing there to do physical therapy on, there’s nothing there, the whole arm is gone.”
McDowell said Billman has been a very patient and tolerant person.
“They made him go do physical therapy and he paid the copay for a month to check a box so we could move to the next treatment and they still denied it,” McDowell said.
McDowell said it’s frustrating for the physician and for the patient.
“Insurance companies control payment for the device and payment for the medicine. I can only do so much,” McDowell said.
“I’m really proud of the fact that he has stuck with it. Many people get frustrated. They go into a dark place. And that’s what those of us in the pain community try to fight against. We try to give people some hope,” McDowell said.
Billman said he will keep jumping through the hoops but he’s worried the response to the opioid crisis may eventually leave legitimate, chronic pain patients out in the cold.
“The fear is that they’re going to take those type of medications away from people like me and then where are we going to be left with nothing,” he said.