Chronic Pain Groups Blast CDC for Opioid Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

A coalition of pain organizations and advocacy groups says newly drafted prescribing guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would – if adopted -- result in the denial of opioid pain medication to patients with legitimate medical needs.

In a highly critical letter to CDC director Tom Frieden, the groups said they were “deeply concerned” that the prescribing guidelines are “inconsistent with established best practices” and show an “extreme imbalance” in the agency’s views about opioids.

The CDC’s draft guidance recommends “non-pharmacological therapy” as the “preferred” treatment for chronic non-cancer pain. Smaller doses and quantities of opioids are also recommended for patients being treated for acute or chronic pain. A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

“By addressing only how to limit or avoid opioids, the new guidelines will inevitably result in fewer prescriptions overall - including those needed by patients with legitimate medical needs,” the letter states.

“Chronic pain advocacy organizations hear daily from increasing numbers of constituents who are not being able to access the opioid medications they’ve relied on to live with their chronic painful conditions. That is not an outcome that anyone involved in chronic pain and prescription opioid diversion and abuse wants but this guideline will produce.”

The letter, which was signed by the U.S. Pain Foundation, American Chronic Pain Association, American Academy of Pain Management and several other groups, was also addressed to Debra Houry, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which oversaw the development of the guidelines.

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The letter also takes the CDC to task for a lack of transparency in how the guidelines were developed and presented during an online “webinar.”

“The CDC slides presented on Wednesday were not transparent relative to process and failed to disclose the names, affiliations, and conflicts of interest of the individuals who participated in the construction of these guidelines. The presenters refused to provide any information other than to read exactly what was written on the slides even when asked directly by audience members to disclose the processes and people who had developed these prescribing guidelines,” the letter says.

As Pain News Network has reported, a lobbying organization that seeks to reduce the prescribing of opioids appears to have played a significant role in developing the guidelines. At least five board members of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) are on CDC panels involved in developing the guidelines, including two board members who belong to a key committee that helped draft them.

The CDC has refused to make public a list of members on the “Core Expert Group” that drafted the guidelines, claiming their anonymity was important “to provide honest and independent comment and feedback.”

PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD, and PROP Vice-President Gary Franklin, MD, are members of the Core Expert Group; and PROP board member David Tauben, MD, is on a peer review panel that will finalize the guidelines, according to internal agency documents obtained by Pain News Network.

In addition, PROP founder and Executive Director Andrew Kolodny, MD, and PROP board member, David Juurlink, MD, are part of a “Stakeholder Review Group” that are providing input on the guidelines.

The CDC and PROP appear to have a close working relationship -- a link to PROP literature recommending “cautious, evidence-based opioid prescribing” can be found -- unedited -- on the CDC’s website.

“CDC’s review panel members and experts represent diverse perspectives on this topic and were selected to minimize conflict of interest among members, enhance objective assessment of the evidence, and reduce scientific bias,” the agency said in a statement to Pain News Network. “Representation from advocacy organizations (e.g. pain management societies, societies focused on responsible opioid prescribing) and professional organizations (e.g. specialties by which opioids are commonly prescribed) were selected to ensure that patients and providers impacted by these recommendations would have a voice in the development process.”

Activists in the pain community were alarmed to learn about PROP's role.

“There are too many powerful lobbyists and competing interests at the federal level,” said Terri Anderson, a chronic pain sufferer and patient advocate.  “Organizations such as PROP, and many other professional medical societies, are exploiting the needs of both addicts and pain patients for their own financial gain.”

CDC's "Rapid Review" of Evidence

Secrecy continues to surround the prescribing guidelines, which are intended to help primary care providers that treat a majority of chronic pain patients. Even though the draft guidelines were released during last week’s webinar, only a summary of the guidelines is available on a CDC website and the agency is no longer accepting public comments on them.

There has also been little news coverage about the guidelines, in large part because the CDC never notified reporters or issued a news release about the webinar.

The CDC said it “streamlined” development of the guidelines so experts could conduct “rapid reviews” of clinical evidence to meet “an urgent public health need.” The agency plans to publish the final guidelines in January 2016 after they undergo peer review.

“Given uncertain benefits and substantial risks, experts agreed that opioids should not be considered first-line or routine therapy for chronic pain outside of end-of-life care,” the agency said in a review of evidence sent to stakeholders and peer reviewers.

“Non-pharmacologic therapy including exercise therapy and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) should be used to reduce pain and improve function in patients with chronic pain. If pharmacologic therapy is needed, non-pharmacologic therapy should be used in combination with non-opioid pharmacologic therapy to reduce pain and improve function.”

The pain organizations called that an “extreme” position in their letter to the CDC.

“It is CDC’s singular focus on prescription opioid diversion, abuse, addiction, and overdose over any improved understanding of chronic pain incidence, prevalence, trends, and optimal interventions that reveals within CDC an extreme imbalance in its own risk-benefit sensibilities when it comes to this class of medications,” the letter says. “FDA requires safety and efficacy trials that all approved opioid medications have met. Detailed prescribing instructions are developed based on proven studies. Yet the new guidelines ignore the FDA’s prescribing expertise, recommending different maximum daily doses that appear in no guidelines or package inserts.”

The FDA appears to have played little -- if any -- role in developing the guidelines with the CDC, even though both agencies are in the Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Secretary Sylvia Burwell. An FDA spokesman would only say that the agency “did have an opportunity to comment on the current version” of the guidelines.

“I would ask you to consider what Secretary Burwell's role is in allowing such divisiveness between CDC and FDA. Shouldn't Burwell be trying to have the federal government have a united front on opioids?” asked David Becker, a social worker and patient advocate.

“It seems to me there is a lack of leadership from the Obama administration on opioids. In addition, they can’t seem to deal with the politics of pain care -- they are not bringing parties together to settle their differences. On the contrary they seem to encourage factionalism and convulsing society.  Individuals in pain are merely pawns in the chess game of pain -- with little power and say over their care.”