PROP Founder Calls Opioids ‘Heroin Pills’

By Pat Anson, Editor

The founder of an advocacy group that seeks to reduce the prescribing of opioid pain medication is calling the drugs “heroin pills” and says patients may not be able to trust doctors who prescribe them.

Andrew Kolodny, MD, Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, appeared on C-SPAN this weekend to speak about the Obama administration’s efforts to combat prescription drug abuse and the increasing use of heroin. He also answered calls from viewers, including one woman who recently started taking a pain medication for arthritis and was worried about becoming addicted.

“In general, if someone’s calling me and asking me about this medication, as a physician my inclination would be to tell you to listen to your doctor and to trust your doctor,” Kolodny told the woman.

“Unfortunately when it comes to opioids, we’re in a situation where many of the prescribers have very bad information about these drugs, they’re really underestimating how addictive and how risky they are and overestimating how helpful they can be.  So I wish I could tell you that you should trust your doctor and talk to your doctor about this, but that may not be the case. This is a really difficult situation. We have doctors even prescribing to teenagers and parents not recognizing that the doctor has just essentially prescribed the teenager the equivalent of a heroin pill.”

Kolodny also compared opioid pain medication to heroin during an addiction conference Friday at the University of Richmond.

“When we talk about opioid painkillers we are essentially talking about heroin pills,” Kolodny said, according to a story in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

He told the conference opioids were “very important medications” to ease suffering at the end of life or after major surgery, but were often not appropriate for chronic pain.

“The bulk of the U.S. opioid consumption is not for end-of-life care or acute pain. The bulk is for common chronic conditions where leading experts who study them say opioids are more likely to harm patients than help them.”

On C-SPAN, Kolodny said many patients taking opioids for chronic pain mistakenly believe the drugs are helping them, when “the vast majority of them are not doing well.”

“What may be happening for many of them is that the opioid is actually treating withdrawal pain. They may not really be getting pain relief when you’re on a consistent dose over a very long period of time,” Kolodny said.

Kolodny and Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) are drawing new attention because of a significant role the organization appears to be playing in the drafting of opioid prescribing guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As Pain News Network has reported, at least five PROP board members, including Kolodny, are on CDC advisory panels that are developing the guidelines. A link to PROP literature recommending “cautious, evidence-based opioid prescribing” can also be found -- unedited -- on the CDC’s website.

PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD, and Vice-President Gary Franklin, MD, are both members of the CDC’s Core Expert Group, and board member David Tauben, MD, is on the CDC’s peer review panel. All three were heavily involved in developing restrictive opioid prescribing guidelines in Washington state.

Kolodny and PROP board member David Juurlink, MD, are members of a “Stakeholder Review Group” that is also providing input on the CDC guidelines.

Those guidelines recommend that “non-pharmacological therapy” and non-opioid pain relievers be used to treat chronic pain. Lower doses and quantities of opioids are recommended for acute pain. A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

The CDC is currently revising the guidelines to meet a January deadline, using "rapid reviews" of clinical evidence “to address an urgent public health need.” The agency blames opioid pain medication for the overdose deaths of over 16,000 Americans annually.

Many pain patients are worried they won’t be able to obtain opioids if the guidelines are adopted. In an online survey of over 2,000 patients by Pain News Network and the Power of Pain Foundation, 95 percent said the guidelines and other government regulations discriminate against them. Most patients also said non-opioid pain relievers didn’t work for them and that their insurance usually didn’t cover therapies like acupuncture, massage and chiropractic care.  

In a conference call last week with stakeholders, CDC officials said the guidelines are being modified to emphasize that they are mostly intended for new patients and that patients currently taking opioids will still have access to the drugs.

“We do need a better answer for these 10 to 12 million Americans who are already on opioids,” Kolodny said on C-SPAN. “We’ll need a compassionate way of helping that population. I think what might be a little easier to do is to prevent what I would call ‘new starts.’ We need to get the medical community to understand that for most patients with chronic pain, long term opioids may not be safe or effective. And let’s avoid getting patients stuck on these medications, medications that are highly addictive.”

Kolodny said existing patients should have easier access to addiction treatment.

“One of the most effective medications for opioid addiction is a drug called buprenorphine or Suboxone,” said Kolodny, who is chief medical officer for Phoenix House, a non-profit that operates addiction treatment clinics.

“Unfortunately there are federal limits on the number of patients a doctor can treat with this medicine. And what we’re seeing is in parts of the country, like West Virginia and Appalachia, and in communities that have been hit very hard, you have doctors who have maxed out on the number of patients they can treat, which is a maximum of one hundred. And there are patients on waiting lists for this medication who are actually dying of overdoses while waiting on this list to be able to get buprenorphine.”

Ironically, buprenorphine is an opioid that is used to treat both addiction and pain. Although praised by Kolodny and other addiction specialists as a tool to wean addicts off opioids, some are fearful the drug is overprescribed and misused. Many addicts have learned they can use buprenorphine to ease their withdrawal symptoms and some consider it more valuable than heroin as a street drug.

Over three million Americans with opioid addiction have been treated with buprenorphine.  According to one estimate, about half of the buprenorphine obtained through legitimate prescriptions is either being diverted or used illicitly.