Congress Investigating CDC’s Opioid Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

A congressional committee has launched an investigation into efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop new guidelines for the prescribing of opioid pain medication. The controversial draft guidelines discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. As many as 11 million Americans take opioids daily for long term, chronic pain.

In a letter to CDC director Thomas Frieden, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned whether the agency broke federal law by appointing a biased advisory panel and refusing to disclose the identities of its members. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked Frieden to supply documents and information about the guidelines process “as soon as possible.”

At issue is the “Core Expert Group,” a panel composed of 17 members, most of them health researchers, state regulators and addiction treatment specialists. Although the CDC never publicly disclosed who was on the panel, their identities were leaked to Pain News Network and other websites. Critics charged that some members had conflicts of interests and strong biases against opioids. No patients or active pain management physicians are on the panel.

“Some groups have raised concern that the proposed guidelines may be insufficient to treat those suffering from chronic pain,” wrote Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).  “We expect CDC’s guidelines drafting process to seek an appropriate balance between the risk of addiction and the need to address chronic pain. The CDC has utilized a ‘Core Expert Group’ in the drafting and development of opioid prescribing guidelines, raising questions as to whether CDC is complying with FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act).”

Chaffetz’s letter was co-signed by five other committee members; Rep. Elijah Cummings (D- Maryland), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Virginia).

Two members of the Core Expert Group are Jane Ballantyne, MD, and Gary Franklin, MD, who are the President and Vice-President, respectively, of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an advocacy group funded by Phoenix House, which runs a chain of addiction treatment centers.

Ballantyne and Franklin, who have been vocal critics of opioid prescribing, played key roles in the development of opioid regulations in Washington State, which has some of the toughest prescribing laws in the nation.

Ballantyne has served as a paid consultant to a law firm that is suing pharmaceutical companies over their opioid marketing practices. She also recently came under fire for co-authoring an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that said reducing pain intensity should not be the goal of doctors that treat chronic pain.

In all, five PROP board members are advising the CDC in different capacities, including its founder, Andrew Kolodny, MD, who has called opioid pain relievers “heroin pills.”   

Another member of the Core Expert Group is Lewis Nelson, MD, an emergency physician and toxicologist at New York University Langone Medical Center. Nelson has also compared prescription opioids to heroin and said the risks of taking them outweigh the benefits.

"As a civilization we somehow managed to survive for 50,000 years without OxyContin and I think we will continue to survive," Nelson recently told the Associated Press.

In his letter to Frieden, Chaffetz asked the CDC to provide all documents related to the selection of the Core Expert Group, as well as any documentation related to their meetings or advice they gave to the agency. They asked Frieden to provide the information by January 8th.

"CDC has received the letter and is complying with the request," a spokesperson for the agency told PNN.

The CDC recently announced it would delay implementing the guidelines, reopen a public comment period, and have the guidelines reviewed by its scientific advisory committee. As Pain News Network has reported, the agency also said the Core Expert Group and other outside advisers are expected to continue advising the CDC. 

Fed Panel 'Appalled' by Guidelines

Some of the sharpest criticism of the CDC has come from officials in other federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, which normally plays a lead role in setting guidelines for prescription drugs.

“I think we need to recognize that CDC wants to substantially limit opioid prescribing. Period,” said Sharon Hertz, director of the FDA’s Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products, at a recent meeting of a federal pain research panel.

Hertz said the evidence cited to support the guidelines was “low to very low and that's a problem." She also told the National Institute of Health’s Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee that the FDA “did have an opportunity to look at the product and comment,” but otherwise was not involved in its development.

Other panel members expressed alarm that, although “voluntary” and meant for primary care physicians, the guidelines could quickly become policy throughout the country.

“I see how our state health department looks at CDC. They really take direction from CDC.  CDC has a great name for good reason. They’ve done incredibly good work in many areas,” one panel member said. “And I have to say this has really diminished my respect for CDC. I have to say that this process was horrible. I’m appalled, appalled at the process CDC used to develop these in secrecy, not allowing input from the pain community and pain physicians.”

“I think we cannot for one minute be naïve enough to imagine that these will be seen as recommendations and that state medical societies, boards of healing arts, legislators, will not jump all over this,” said Myra Christopher, of the Center for Practical Bioethics.

"This is a ridiculous recommendation from my perspective. Very low quality of evidence, yet a strong recommendation. How do you possibly do that?” asked Richard Ricciardi, PhD, of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

I would be remiss and I’m certain so would many of my government colleagues if I didn’t go back to my director and say there’s a report coming out of the CDC that has very low quality of evidence and there’s a strong recommendation. That’s an embarrassment to the government.”

The CDC’s own briefing papers 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 documents 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.”

Even though the guidelines may be several months away from being finalized, Congress last week passed and President Obama signed into law a federal spending bill that requires the Veterans Administration to adopt the CDC’s guidelines as official policy when VA doctors treat veterans suffering from chronic pain.