Are the CDC Opioid Guidelines Really Voluntary?

By Pat Anson, Editor

When is a medical guideline voluntary and when does it become a “standard of practice” that doctors are expected to follow?

That is one of the key questions in the ongoing debate over controversial guidelines for opioid prescribing unveiled last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The draft guidelines recommend “non-pharmacological therapy” and other types of pain relievers as preferred treatments for chronic non-cancer pain. Smaller doses and quantities of opioids are also recommended when the drugs are used to treat acute or chronic pain.  A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

The CDC says the guidelines are needed to help primary care providers. Many lack adequate training in pain management and opioid prescribing, yet they treat the vast majority of chronic pain patients.

“It’s important to note that CDC is not a regulatory agency, unlike the Food and Drug Administration.  Physicians are not required to use the guideline, instead it is intended to support informed clinical decision making regarding the provision of safer, more effective pain treatment for patients,” said Courtney Leland, a spokesperson for the CDC.

But the CDC’s own internal documents make clear that the agency’s ultimate goal is for the guidelines to be widely adopted.

“Efforts are required to disseminate the guideline and achieve widespread adoption and implementation of the recommendations in clinical settings,” the agency says in briefing papers obtained by Pain News Network.  “CDC is dedicated to translating this guideline into user-friendly materials for distribution and use by health systems, medical professional societies, insurers, public health departments, health information technology developers, and providers, and engaging in dissemination efforts.”

“Clearly the intent of CDC is that the guideline be distributed to and adopted by state public health entities and certifying organizations as if it had the legal authority of a regulation,” a representative with the American Cancer Society wrote in a recent letter to CDC Director Tom Frieden.  

The letter said the American Cancer Society “cannot endorse the proposed guidelines in any way” because they “have the potential to significantly limit cancer patient access to needed pain medicines.”

Experts and patient advocacy organizations say the guidelines – voluntary or not – could quickly be adopted by state licensing boards and have a chilling effect on doctors who prescribe opioids.

“If a healthcare provider receives correspondence from the CDC, the assumption can be made that more often than not, the healthcare provider will consider such correspondence relevant and necessary to follow so as to not face any backlash from the CDC or similar agency,” said Shaina Smith, Director of State Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation, one of the nation’s largest patient advocacy organizations.

“A guideline coming from CDC will be viewed as having a stronger pedigree than a guideline coming from a professional society or other source, and will thus be more likely to be adopted as reflecting a standard of practice, or adopted as a rule by state licensing boards,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the American Academy of Pain Management.

Once in place, Twillman says a guideline or rule could be used in court by a disgruntled patient to challenge the competency of their doctor.

“If a prescriber is sued, one of the things that will be raised at trial is whether or not the prescriber demonstrated that the care provided conforms to the standard of practice. Standard of practice is a bit of an ill-defined term, but I can guarantee you that one question that would be asked in making this determination is, ‘Did you, or did you not, provide care that conforms to the most up-to-date and evidence-based guidelines?’ Any prescriber who can’t show that the care in question conformed to guidelines is going to be in a world of hurt,” Twillman wrote in an email to Pain News Network.

“It can get further complicated because guidelines also come up in disciplinary hearings by licensing boards and other agencies. Again, the same question will be asked, and again, a prescriber whose treatment does not conform to guidelines will be in jeopardy.”

Guidelines Can Become Laws

Twillman says there are precedents for guidelines to turn into laws. Such was the case in Washington State in 2007, when the Agency Medical Director’s Group (AMDG) adopted what was then the nation’s toughest guidelines for physicians who treat pain and prescribe opioids. In 2010, Washington’s Governor signed many of those same guidelines into law, the first in the world to set specific dosing levels for opioids.

Interestingly, two key members of the AMDG were Drs. Gary Franklin and David Tauben, who now sit on CDC panels that are helping to develop and draft the agency’s opioid guidelines. A third CDC panelist, Dr. Jane Ballantyne, has spoken at several hearings in favor of the AMDG guidelines.

Ballantyne and Franklin are the President and Vice-President, respectively, of an advocacy group called Physicians for Responsible Prescribing (PROP), which seeks to reduce the overprescribing of opioid pain medication. Tauben is a board member of PROP, as are two other CDC panelists providing input on the opioid guidelines.

The CDC says it is only fulfilling its mandate to protect the public from a serious health issue.

“Although CDC has not previously issued guidelines on opioid prescribing, we have consulted on and supported guideline development by professional organizations,” said the CDC’s Leland, citing as an example guidelines developed by the American College of Emergency Physicians on the use of opioids in hospital emergency rooms.

“CDC is the nation's health protection agency, operating to strengthen our nation’s public health systems. One way we do this is by developing and issuing guidelines and recommendations on any number of health issues, including those guiding clinical practice,” Leland added. “Prescription drug abuse and overdose is a serious public health issue and improving the way opioids are prescribed through clinical practice guidelines can ensure patients have access to safer, more effective chronic pain treatment while reducing the number of people who misuse, abuse, or overdose.”

Leland says the agency is currently revising its draft opioid guidelines – after getting input from healthcare providers and some patients – and remains on track to finalize and release the guidelines in January 2016.