How the CDC Misclassifies Opioid Overdoses

By Denise Molohon, Guest Columnist

I think the minute anyone without bias or personal agenda began reading through the CDC's proposed guidelines for opioid prescribing, they must seriously question many things.

Chief among them, the highly suspect "low to very low quality" evidence being presented to support their "strong recommendations," but also their dangerously skewed data; which ultimately could leave millions of chronic pain sufferers critically ill, without sound medical treatments, and with little to no quality of life.

In a recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) on drug and opioid overdose deaths, I found myself doing the exact same thing -- seriously questioning the data. In 2014, the report found that 28,647 people died of drug overdoses involving opioids, including heroin, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. 

However, the CDC admits in the MMWR, that "some overdose deaths may have been misclassified and the data has limitations.” I wondered how much was misclassified? Exactly what data has limitations and why?

I believe the American people have a right to transparency and full disclosure, not flawed data that is often presented in a confusing manner, such as the following qualifiers in the MMWR:

“At autopsy, toxicological laboratory tests might be performed to determine the type of drugs present; however, the substances tested for and circumstances under which the tests are performed vary by jurisdiction.”

“The percent of overdose deaths with specific drugs identified on the death certificate varies widely by state.”

"Approximately one fifth of drug overdose deaths lack information on the specific drugs involved. Some of these deaths might involve opioids."

 “Heroin deaths might be misclassified as morphine because morphine and heroin are metabolized similarly, which might result in an underreporting of heroin overdose deaths.”

 If heroin deaths are being misclassified as morphine, which results in the "underreporting" of heroin overdose deaths, then wouldn't the opposite also hold true? That there is "over-reporting" of morphine deaths, which are then misclassified as prescription opioid deaths? 

According to the Washington Post, CDC Director Tom Frieden admitted some heroin overdose deaths were counted twice!

Another egregious misclassification, which I find grossly unjustified, is the following:

"Historically, CDC has programmatically characterized all opioid pain reliever deaths (natural and semisynthetic opioids, methadone, and other synthetic opioids) as ‘prescription’ opioid overdoses."

On the surface this statement doesn't appear too concerning. Until you begin to take a closer look at what has been happening over the last 3-5 years with heroin and illicit fentanyl overdose deaths, and how both illegal and legal opioids have been lumped together into one category.

All opioid pain reliever deaths are counted as “prescription” opioid overdoses. Why?

“Natural opioids” includes those heroin deaths that were misclassified as morphine related overdose deaths, which no doubt contributed in some degree to that 14% increase in opioid overdose deaths in 2014.

But how many of these heroin deaths were misclassified? We may never know. The DEA reported last year in its National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary that, “Many medical examiners are reluctant to characterize a death as heroin-related without the presence of 6-monoaceytlmorphine (6-MAM), a metabolite unique to heroin, but which quickly metabolizes into morphine.  Thus many heroin deaths are reported as morphine-related deaths."

illicit fentanyl seized in ohio

illicit fentanyl seized in ohio

“Synthetic opioids” includes not only prescribed fentanyl, which is a potent pain reliever, but illicit fentanyl overdoses,  which have skyrocketed over the last two years. Because most medical examiners and coroners did not routinely test for fentanyl in 2014, many illicit fentanyl/heroin overdose deaths were also probably counted as prescription opioid overdoses. 

Medical examiners and coroners are just now beginning to test for fentanyl because of the sharp rise in overdose deaths in the U.S. and Canada. Both the CDC and the DEA issued advisories about illicit fentanyl overdoses last year, but we don’t know exactly how many deaths there were.

Why is the data about opioid overdoses so flawed and what is the government doing about it?

A federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Medical Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) brought together groups of experts four times in 2003, 2007, 2010, and again in 2013. All agreed uniform standards and definitions were needed for classifying opioid-related deaths. Guidelines were developed in July 2013 by SAMHSA to provide uniform standard procedures for medical examiners, coroners and other practitioners.

The CDC is not only aware of these guidelines, but it recently recommended medical examiners and coroners in all states implement them “to ensure death reports are complete and accurate.”

“It is especially important to include the word ‘fentanyl’ on the death certificate when the drug is a contributing cause of death,” the CDC said in a Health Advisory distributed on October 26, 2015.

Why fentanyl? Based on reports from states and drug seizure data, a substantial portion of the increase in synthetic opioid deaths appears to be related to increased availability of illicit fentanyl, which is often combined with heroin or even sold as heroin.

David J. Hickton, U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania and co-chair of the Justice Department's National Heroin Task Force, told the Washington Post that "fentanyl and more potent heroin appear to have contributed to the 2014 spike in fatal overdoses."

According to the DEA's National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary, the overwhelming number of fentanyl overdose deaths are not attributable to pharmaceutical fentanyl but rather illicit fentanyl.

“There have been over 700 overdose deaths reported, and the true number is most likely higher because many coronersoffices and state crime laboratories do not test for fentanyl or its analogs unless given a specific reason to do so,” the report warns. "While pharmaceutical fentanyl (from transdermal patches or lozenges) is diverted for abuse in the United States at small levels, this latest rash of overdose deaths is largely due to clandestinely-produced fentanyl, not diverted pharmaceutical fentanyl."

Note that the DEA is making a critical distinction between an illegal drug and a legal prescription drug. Why isn’t the CDC doing this?

In my opinion, for the CDC to lump all opioids together as "prescription" opioids or as "pain relievers" shows a highly dangerous bias, an unwillingness to address the soaring number of heroin and fentanyl overdoses, and a lack of competence in taking a responsible leadership role.

If the CDC can’t be counted on to clearly report on the data, sources and causes of overdose deaths, how can we trust their opioid prescribing guidelines?

Denise Molholon.jpg

Denise Molohon was disabled with Adhesive Arachnoiditis after multiple spinal surgeries.

Denise is a strong supporter and patient advocate for ASAP, the Arachnoiditis Society for Awareness & Prevention. She and her family live in Indiana.

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