Special Interest Groups Behind CDC Opioid Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

Dozens of organizations representing physicians, pharmacies, insurance companies and other special interest groups were invited to participate in an online “webinar” last week, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unveiled its controversial new guidelines for opioid prescribing.  But there were only two seats at the cyber table for groups representing pain patients – the people most affected by the proposed guidelines.

The CDC has provided a list to Pain News Network of over 50 organizations that were sent invitations to the webinar – the first and only time the CDC publicly disclosed its prescribing guidelines and sought public input. A full list of the invited groups will be listed at the end of this article.

Among the organizations that were invited were the pharmacy chain CVS Caremark and insurers Blue Cross Blue Shield, Humana, Cigna and Kaiser Permanente.

“It is unbelievable that the CDC would include payers in the development of treatment guidelines. Payers profit from depriving patients access to treatment,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “I cannot express the magnitude of my level of disappointment in the CDC.”

If adopted, the CDC’s draft guidance for primary care physicians would lead to further restrictions on the prescribing of opioid pain medications for both acute and chronic pain. A full list of the guidelines can be found here.

The agency is promoting “non-pharmacological therapy” such as exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as an alternative to opioids – treatments usually not covered by insurance. The goal is to reduce the so-called epidemic of overdoses and prescription drug abuse.

“Since opioid prescribing and overdoses have been steadily declining since 2010, the motivation for all the restrictive guidelines is, I believe, primarily profits and greed of the big players under Obamacare,” said Forest Tennant, MD, a prominent pain physician and researcher in West Covina, California. 

“Have you seen the unbelievable profits the insurance, hospital, pharmaceutical, and drug store chains are now making?  To keep up the gravy train, the big players have to continue to reduce patient benefits and physician payments. There is no question in my mind. Patients and their families and advocates have to speak loudly, firmly, and progressively going forward.”

Patients and their advocates have played only a minimal role in the development of the CDC guidelines. The only two patient advocacy groups invited to the webinar were the American Chronic Pain Association and the American Cancer Society.

One group that was well represented at the webinar were non-profits focused on fighting addiction and drug abuse, includingThe Partnership at Drugfree.org,  Safe States, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, Harm Reduction Coalition, ShatterProof, and Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP).

As Pain News Network has reported, PROP has played a significant role behind the scenes in the development of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines. At least five PROP board members, including President Jane Ballantyne, MD, Vice-President Gary Franklin, MD, and PROP founder Andrew Kolodny, MD, are on CDC panels that developed the guidelines. Kolodny is chief medical officer for Phoenix House, a non-profit that operates a chain of addiction treatment clinics.

Was CDC "Hoodwinked" by Experts?

“I am surprised that the CDC would secretly align with PROP and others with conflicts, especially since many, if not most of their proposed guideline statements are not scientifically based,” said Jeffrey Fudin, PharmD, a pharmacist and founder of Professionals for Rational Opioid Monitoring & Pharmacotherapy (PROMPT).

“CDC should be ashamed at their approach, as they were obviously hoodwinked by the presumed experts, most of whom have no formal training in pain management whatsoever.  I am surprised that participants were not required to disclose potential conflicts. It disgusts me that the very stakeholders that are paying for opioids are on a panel with an agenda to save money by denying opioid use.”

The CDC said it selected a “diverse” panel of experts for its various committees, including the "Core Expert Group" (CEG) that apparently played the largest role in developing the guidelines. A list of CEG members and peer reviewers will be listed at the end of this article.

"For a guideline to be credible, it is important to eliminate or effectively manage sources of bias. These sources of bias might include financial relationships with industry, intellectual preconceptions, and previously stated public positions. Prior to participation, CDC asked CEG members to reveal potential conflicts of interest. Members could not serve if they held conflicts that could be anticipated to have a direct and predictable effect on the recommendations," the agency said in internal documents obtained by Pain News Network.

According to those documents, CEG members Ballantyne and Franklin did not disclose they were PROP office holders or indicate they had a conflict of interest as members of PROP. 

Ballantyne did disclose that she served as a paid consultant to Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a law firm that specializes in antitrust litigation, including lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.  Ballanytne also disclosed that she serves on a special advisory committee reviewing opioid abuse deterrence for the Food and Drug Administration.

"There is strong evidence that increased prescribing for chronic pain has produced increases in dependence, overdose and death without improving pain relief, function or quality of life for many individuals with common chronic pain diagnoses," wrote Ballantyne in a recent letter on behalf of PROP to an official with the National Institutes of Health, which is developing the National Pain Strategy. 

Franklin did not disclose any conflicts, although he played a significant role in the development of opioid prescribing regulations in Washington state, which has some of the toughest prescribing laws in the nation. For that, Franklin was honored by the workers compensation industry for "his pioneering research and outspokenness on the overprescribing of opioid pain medications."

“Whereas there is evidence for significant short-term pain relief, there is no substantial evidence for maintenance of pain relief or improved function over long periods of time without incurring serious risk of overdose, dependence, or addiction,” wrote Franklin in a position paper published last year in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The CDC said it carefully reviewed the financial relationships and "intellectual preconceptions" of CEG members --- and "determined the risk of these types of activities to be minimal."

A request for an interview with Debra Houry, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which selected the panels, vetted the members, and oversaw development of the guidelines, was declined.

Guidelines "Bad News" for Pain Patients

Patient advocacy groups are only now waking up to the fact that they’ve had little role or voice in the CDC guidelines -- which are scheduled to be released in January. Only a summary of the guidelines is available on a CDC website and the agency is no longer accepting public comments on them.

"The CDC's draft guidelines regarding pain therapy are bad news for thousands of patients living with daily pain. They ignore the needs of patients and offer no real solutions to help physicians manage patients' pain. In addition, these guidelines were developed behind closed doors and have not been made publicly available. It is imperative that the CDC be transparent as they develop these guidelines," said Srinivas Nalamachu, MD, a member of the Alliance for Patient Access.

 In a letter sent to CDC Director Tom Frieden, a coalition of patient 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.

They also complained about the 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 states.

It’s not the first time pain patients have been largely excluded from an issue that’s important to them, according to David Becker, a patient advocate and longtime critic of regulators and leaders in pain care.

“Until people in pain work together in common cause to have a real voice in pain care, then the designs of others in government and industry will continue to impose inhumane, degrading, and ineffective treatment on them - without their advice or consent,” Becker said.

Interestingly, the only media outlet invited to the CDC webinar was Consumer Reports, which last year did a cover story and special report on “The Dangers of Painkillers.”

Groups and organizations invited to the CDC webinar:

  • American Academy of Family Physicians
  • American Academy of General Physicians
  • American Academy of Neurology
  • American Academy of Pain Management
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • American Board of Internal Medicine
  • American Cancer Society
  • American Chronic Pain Association
  • American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  • American College of Physicians
  • American College of Preventive Medicine
  • American Geriatrics Society
  • American Hospital Association
  • American Insurance Association
  • American Medical Association
  • American Pain Society
  • American Pharmacists Association
  • American Physical Therapy Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine
  • American Society of Anesthesiologists
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology
  • American Society of Health-System Pharmacists
  • American Society of Hematology
  • American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians
  • Association of American Medical Colleges
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield(s)
  • Brandeis PDMP Center of Excellence
  • Cigna
  • Clinton Global Initiative
  • Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies
  • Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America
  • Consumer Reports
  • CVS Caremark
  • Federation of State Medical Boards
  • Harm Reduction Coalition
  • Kaiser Permanente Southern California
  • MaineCare
  • National Association of Boards of Pharmacy
  • National Association of State Alcohol/Drug Abuse Directors
  • National Association of State Medicaid Directors
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network
  • National Conference of State Legislatures
  • National Governors Association
  • National Safety Council
  • Pew Charitable Trusts
  • Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing
  • Safe States
  • ShatterProof
  • Trust for America’s Health
  • The Partnership at Drugfree.org
  • American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence
  • Appalachian Regional Commission
  • Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
  • American College of Emergency Medicine
  • National Association of County and City Health Officials
  • Society of General Internal Medicine
  • Core Core Violence & Injury Prevention Program (VIPP) grantees
  • CDC Prevention for States grantees

Core Expert Group members:

  • Pam Archer, MPH; Oklahoma State Department of Health
  • Jane Ballantyne, MD; University of Washington/PROP President
  • Amy Bohnert, MHS, PhD; University of Michigan
  • Bonnie Burman, ScD; Ohio Department on Aging
  • Roger Chou, MD; Oregon Health and Sciences University
  • Phillip Coffin, MD, MIA; San Francisco Department of Public Health
  • Gary Franklin, MD, MPH; University of Washington/PROP Vice-President
  • Erin Krebs, MD, MPH; Minneapolis VA Health Care System/University of Minnesota
  • Mitchel Mutter, MD; Tennessee Department of Health
  • Lewis Nelson, MD, New York University School of Medicine
  • Trupti Patel, MD; Arizona Department of Health Services
  • Christina A. Porucznik, PhD, MSPH; University of Utah
  • Robert Rich, MD, FAAFP; American Academy of Family Physicians
  • Joanna Starrels, MD, MS; Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
  • Michael Steinman, MD; Society of General Internal Medicine
  • Thomas Tape, MD; American College of Physicians
  • Judith Turner, PhD; University of Washington

Peer Reviewers:

  • Matthew Bair, MD, MS, Indiana University
  • Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, University of Pennsylvania
  • David Tauben, MD, University of Washington/PROP board member