By Pat Anson, Editor
With its signature accomplishment under fire from pain patients, health professionals and even some congressmen, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) is now engaged in a public campaign to discredit critics by labeling them as pawns of the “opioid lobby.”
PROP, an advocacy group funded by the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House, played a key role in drafting the controversial opioid prescribing guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Five PROP board members serve on CDC panels that helped develop the guidelines, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
As many as 11 million Americans use opioids for long-term, chronic pain and many fear losing access to opioids if the guidelines are adopted.
The CDC planned to finalize the guidelines next month, but a wave of criticism that the guidelines are too restrictive, along with allegations that the agency violated federal law while secretly drafting them, forced the agency to reconsider.
“CDC’s plan was effectively blocked by intense pressure from the opioid lobby, which sees more cautious opioid use as a financial threat,” wrote PROP founder and Executive Director Andrew Kolodny, MD, in newsletter emailed Wednesday to PROP supporters. Kolodny is chief medical officer for Phoenix House.
“CDC was pressured into opening a federal docket on its draft guideline. This will tack months onto the process – it is also highly unusual – federal dockets are typically opened for public comment on proposed regulations – not for medical guidance issued by CDC,” Kolodny wrote.
In his “urgent request” to supporters, Kolodny asks them to visit this federal website and post comments in favor of the guidelines. He even offers several suggestions on what to write.
Over 600 comments have been received since the comment period opened on December 14 and many of the recent ones apparently are from PROP supporters. They often parrot instructions made by Kolodny in his newsletter.
“The medical community is urgently in need of guidance from CDC because aggressive opioid prescribing is harming pain patients and fueling an epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths,” wrote Janis McGrory, in a word-for-word rendition straight from Kolodny’s newsletter.
"I am in full support of the CDC guideline calling for more cautious opioid prescribing. My son died at the age of 26. He was a heroin user that started from prescribed opioids for a back injury," wrote Veronica Deborde. "I am sure if the opioid lobbyist lost a child to opioid use they wouldn't even consider blocking the CDC."
"The havoc that drug addiction can reap, not only on individuals but their entire family, is beyond devastating. Please don't let big pharma and financial implications weigh in on the issue of public safety," wrote pharmacist Sarah Randolph.
"Opioid Lobby" Funding
It’s not unusual for advocacy groups to urge their supporters to take action or to instruct them on what to do. Several groups opposed to the guidelines have been doing the exact same thing. But Kolodny takes it a step further, by challenging the integrity of non-profits, medical societies and others who oppose the guidelines.
“This is a big win for the opioid lobby,” Koldony said last week in a widely reported Associated Press story about the CDC’s decision to delay implementing the guidelines.
“The story here is how the opioid lobby is using the Cancer Action Network to discredit a public health effort to limit opioid prescribing,” Kolodny told The Hill.
“Here’s background on shady organization now attacking CDC’s draft opioid guideline,” Kolodny wrote in a Tweet.
As far back as September, Kolodny apparently knew the guidelines would generate controversy. That’s when he told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that the U.S. Senate Finance Committee should release details of a 2012 investigation of opioid manufacturers’ ties to medical groups.
Why dig up a 3-year old investigation? Kolodny told the Journal Sentinel his goal was to discredit pain organizations who might oppose the guidelines.
"By making the findings of the investigation public and exposing the financial relationships between pain organizations and opioid makers, it will be harder for them to claim that it is the interests of pain patients they are lobbying for," he said.
Kolodny has found many other eager listeners in the news media, who have adopted his views about opioids, the addiction and overdoses they can cause, and the alleged influence of the so-called opioid lobby.
For example, in a story this week headlined, “Makers of OxyContin Bankroll Efforts to Undermine Prescription Painkiller Reform,” The Intercept reported that opioid manufacturers “are funding nonprofit groups fighting furiously against efforts to reform how these drugs are prescribed.”
Among the groups singled out in The Intercept’s “investigation” was the Power of Pain Foundation, which has accepted funds from Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin.
Power of Pain President Barby Ingle, who is also a PNN columnist, is furious her non-profit was dragged into the controversy over a relatively small amount of money.
“Yes, to date (over the past 9 years) Purdue has given $15,000 total, all unrestricted grants to our foundation. A bulk of it is being used to produce our Music Moves Awareness project which will feature the stories of 20 pain patients with different pain diseases, all doing different pain treatments, representing youth, young adult, adult, and elderly patients,” said Ingle, a pain sufferer who happens to be allergic to OxyContin.
“None of our 10 voting board members takes opioid medications for any chronic illness. I also personally serve on the 2015 Purdue Pharma Patient Board of Advisory which paid me $100 for my personal opinions on the pain community and access to care issues.”
Another group often singled out as being part of the “opioid lobby” is the American Academy of Pain Management, which reportedly gets 10% of its revenue (about $300,000) from opioid manufacturers.
“Some have said that this delay (in the CDC guidelines) is a victory for ‘the opioid lobby,’ but I think it’s not really a victory for anyone,” said Bob Twillman, Executive Director of the American Academy of Pain Management. “It might be a victory for tried-and-true methods of developing practice guidelines, and a victory for transparency, but a delay in producing reasonable, workable guidelines actually does everyone a disservice. That could have been prevented, had CDC used a proper process from the beginning.”
The CDC’s public comment period on the guidelines continues until January 13th. You can make a comment by clicking here.
The proposed prescribing guidelines and the reasoning behind them can be found in a 56-page report you can see by clicking here.
(For the record, Andrew Kolodny and I had a somewhat cordial and professional relationship until a few months ago, when he became unhappy with Pain News Network coverage of opioid issues and stopped communicating with me. PROP President Jane Ballantyne also has not responded to repeated requests for comment on various articles we’ve written about her.
PROP has a standing invitation from PNN for an op/ed column about its views on opioids and/or the CDC guidelines, which we would be happy to publish. The same offer is extended to other groups with similar views.)