CDC Reports on Opioids Appear Biased

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

Like most people, I respect the opinion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is our first and last line of defense against everything from chronic disease to full-fledged pandemics. That said, I am perplexed why the CDC would sound an alarm, while at the same time acknowledging that the fire doesn’t actually exist.

That’s more or less what the CDC did in a report finding that approximately a quarter of privately insured and a third of Medicaid-enrolled women of reproductive age (15-44 years) filled a prescription for an opioid each year from 2008 to 2012. The report went on to say that the trend of opioid prescriptions among childbearing women places unborn children at risk for birth defects. On this point, the report does not address how many of the women actually became pregnant and otherwise has a glaring absence of empirical data to support its claims.

If you are a clinician or scientist, the CDC report appears incomplete and biased against people in pain. If you are a patient or consumer of the news, the report is alarming. Neither of these outcomes advances medicine, nor do they help people who abuse prescription medication or those who experience chronic pain.

Without question, opioids must be replaced as a primary method of pain treatment in favor of safer and more effective therapies. It is clear that in many instances, the risks of opioid therapy far outweigh the benefits. However, many patients with pain have no other options, so until patients have access to effective alternatives, this type of reporting is counterproductive.

Because the report does not clarify the actual risks, nor compare them with the risks of continued pain in the absence of treatment, the CDC wades into dangerous territory of conjecture. Moreover, an overreliance on retrospective observational studies makes it difficult to evaluate the true impact of opioid use on the incidence of birth defects or whether other factors, such as the mother’s health status and co-occurring tobacco or alcohol use, were greater contributors. Although neonatal abstinence syndrome can definitely be traced to opioid use, the CDC investigators did not examine why the majority of infants born to opioid-consuming mothers do not develop it.

In addition to fuzzy reporting of the science, ethical issues are apparent in considering all women of childbearing age as fundamentally “prepregnant” when it comes to clinical decision making regarding opioid analgesia. These concerns were well delineated by Kristen Gwynne in an online article at RH Reality Check. Clinicians must always weigh potential benefits against potential harm before prescribing opioid therapy. But this has always been true of opioids and all medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants and anticonvulsants.

The result of incomplete reporting could be the withholding of opioids from people based on gender and age, regardless of pregnancy status, even when strong pain-killing medications are indicated or when safer alternatives are not available. In fact, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Abrupt discontinuation of opioids in an opioid-dependent pregnant woman can result in preterm labor, fetal distress, or fetal demise.”

To be viable, alternatives to opioids must be effective and be covered by public and private insurance payers. Commentators who suggest opioids should not be prescribed often fail to present this important perspective and also imply that harm from opioids is inevitable, an error that contributes to the stigma and isolation felt by those whose lives would be crippled without their legally prescribed medications.

And yet, slanted reporting continues. In February, another CDC report appeared, endorsing scientifically vague opioid classifications of “stronger vs. weaker” than morphine. In analyzing the February report, June Dahl, PhD, properly pointed out the error in failing to consider the differing pharmacologic factors, mechanisms of action, formulations and the clinical relevance of relative effectiveness when comparing the medications.

Given the concerns with accuracy of scientific reporting, is it reasonable to increase federal funding to the CDC to battle prescription opioid abuse, as requested? Only with an understanding of the real reasons for the current opioid problem can we solve the problem. Perhaps more dollars should instead go to the National Institutes of Health, which is in desperate need of more funding for pain research and to develop safer alternatives to opioids.

Regardless, solutions cannot succeed in the absence of recognition that uncontrolled chronic pain is a major public health problem, worthy of focus similar to efforts to battle cancer, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Education of clinicians is good but cannot create treatment options or adequate insurance coverage where none exist. CDC officials and others must think about the problem differently and with less prejudice against people with chronic pain. Often the focus is on cutting supply alone; but in reality, this is difficult to accomplish without harming people with genuine pain when the payor system does not adequately cover evidence-based alternative therapies, including multidisciplinary integrative programs.

Instead payors, particularly government programs such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and workers’ compensation, prefer the less costly opioid methadone, associated with more fatalities per prescription than any other.

Although a majority of opioid-prescribed patients do not abuse or become addicted, it is undoubtedly true that some people have contraindications for long-term prescribed opioids. These are potentially dangerous medications, which can be fatal. But effective solutions require a multifaceted approach and cannot ignore the needs of people in pain. Opioids formulated with abuse deterrents are needed as is greater funding and less stigmatization of people with the disease of addiction. Certainly, payors should cover safer and more effective therapies.

As I’ve said before, I hope opioids will one day not be needed, and commentaries like this one will be unnecessary. If the public health problem from opioids is too great, then it is the purview of the CDC to report on access to safer and more effective therapies in the interest of the other great public health problem: chronic pain. It is not an option to deny people in pain access to opioids if alternatives are nonexistent or unavailable.

Lynn Webster, MD, is Past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences. He is a Pain Medicine News editorial board member and author of a forthcoming book, “The Painful Truth.”

This column is republished with permission from Pain Medicine News.

You can follow Dr. Webster on his blog, and on Twitter @LynnRWebsterMD, Facebook and LinkedIn.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.