CDC Updates Opioid Prescribing Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is “still revising and making lots of changes” to its controversial draft guidelines for opioid prescribers, according to a source who listened to a CDC conference call today updating “stakeholders” about the guidelines.

But CDC officials gave few specifics on what modification have been made, and said the dozen guidelines will remain under a strict embargo until they are released in January.

“Overall, they tried hard to give the sense that they really listened and responded to our comments. But, of course, all they did was talk in generalities about changes that have been made, and we won’t see it again until it’s published,” the source told Pain News Network.

The draft guidelines ignited a storm of controversy in the pain community when they were released last month. The CDC is recommending “non-pharmacological therapy” and non-opioid pain relievers as preferred treatments for chronic non-cancer pain. Smaller doses and quantities of opioids are recommended for patients in acute or chronic pain.  A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

A survey of over 2,000 pain patients by Pain News Network and the Power of Pain Foundation found that many are worried about losing access to opioid pain medications if the guidelines are adopted. Nearly 93 percent believe the guidelines would be more harmful than helpful to pain patients. Many also believe they will not decrease the use of illegal drugs but actually increase them, causing even more addiction and overdoses.

On today’s call, CDC officials said their most important goal was to maintain access to opioids for pain patients. They also emphasized that the guidelines are voluntary for primary care physicians, who treat the vast majority of pain patients. Language such as “usually” and “whenever possible” are being added to a number of guidelines to give prescribers more flexibility, according to the source.

One guideline that has raised serious concern would put an upper limit on opioid prescribing to a daily dose of 90 mg of morphine equivalent. One stakeholder during the call said that threshold was “arbitrary” and “perhaps dangerous.” CDC officials said the language in that guideline was modified extensively to emphasize that is intended for new patients, not patients who are already taking opioids at or above that dosage level.

The CDC said it received over 1,200 comments on the guidelines during a 48 hour window when it accepted comments from stakeholders and the public last month.  Although as many as 11.5 million Americans are on long term opioid therapy, public participation has been minimal in the guidelines development. Only two patient advocacy groups were included among the dozens of stakeholders and special interests invited to listen to today's conference call. A complete list of the stakeholders will be listed at the end of this article.

The CDC’s update came as the Obama Administration announced new efforts aimed at addressing prescription drug abuse. Over 40 organizations representing doctors, dentists, nurses, physical therapists and educators announced that over half a million of their members would  complete opioid prescriber training in the next two years. In addition, several media outlets, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and other companies said they would donate millions of dollars for public service announcements about the risks of prescription drug misuse.

Call for Congressional Investigation

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pain Management (AAPM) is urging the House Energy and Commerce Committee to look into how the CDC developed the opioid guidelines. In a letter to committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the AAPM said the process used in developing the guidelines was “deeply flawed” by secrecy and a lack of transparency, as well as potential conflicts of interest with many of the outside advisers the CDC consulted with.  

“We urge you to strongly encourage CDC to withdraw this draft guideline and, should they decide to start over, to engage in a process that is more transparent and inclusive of the needs and views of all clinicians and patients—both those with pain and those who misuse opioid pain relievers,” wrote Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of AAPM.

“Unless these questions are adequately addressed, the organizations with clinicians who strive to treat chronic pain, and in fact do so with opioids, will not support them but will, by necessity, be forced to actively oppose them.”

Washington Post Calls Guidelines “Promising”

Secrecy surrounding the CDC guidelines has been one reason they haven’t gotten much coverage in the mainstream news media. One example is the Washington Post, which has yet to run a story on the guidelines or the controversy surrounding their development.

But that oversight didn’t stop the Post’s editorial board from weighing in on the issue. In an editorial headlined “The CDC’s promising plan to curb America’s opioid dependence,” the Post said the guidelines would turn opioid prescribing “in an appropriately more cautious direction.”

The editorial also dismissed a letter from the American Cancer Society opposing the guidelines, saying its concerns about cancer patients being denied pain relief were “overstated.”

“It’s true, as the cancer society letter notes, that the CDC guidelines are more than mere suggestions and will influence ‘state health departments, professional licensing bodies or insurers.’ That is precisely why they can be so beneficial,” the Post said.

“Until now, government, medicine and the private sector have too often underestimated the risks, individual and societal, of widespread opioid prescription. The CDC has the prestige and authority to correct the balance. After incorporating valid comments from the cancer society and other interested parties, the CDC plans to publish in early 2016, and we see no reason to delay.”

CDC's Stakeholder Review Group:

American Academy of Neurology; John Markman, MD
American Academy of Pain Medicine; Edward C. Covington, MD
American Academy of Pain Management; Bob Twillman, PhD
American Academy of Pediatrics; Roger F. Suchyta, MD, FAAP
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; Christina Hielsberg
American Cancer Society; Mark Fleury, PhD
American Chronic Pain Association; Penney Cowan
American College of Medical Toxicology, David Juurlink, BPharm, MD, PhD
American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Gerald “Jerry” F. Joseph, Jr, M.D.
American Geriatrics Society; Mary Jordan Samuel
American Hospital Association; Ashley Thompson
American Medical Association; Barry D. Dickinson, PhD
American Pain Society; Gregory Terman MD, PhD
American Society of Anesthesiologists; Asokumar Buvanendran, M.D.
American Society of Addiction Medicine; Beth Haynes, MPPA
American Society of Hematology; Robert M. Plovnick, MD, MS
American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians; Sanford M. Silverman, MD
Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing; Andrew Kolodny, MD