What Grade Should Your State Get for Pain Care?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Millions of Americans who suffer from chronic pain are having trouble finding doctors, obtaining pain medication, and getting health insurance to cover their treatment. So imagine their surprise when a recent study gave passing grades to all 50 states for their pain care policies and said there was “an overall positive policy environment across the nation.”  

“We saw that report and were disgusted. At a time when chronic pain patients across the country are losing their medications and treatments to manage their pain, giving no state a grade below a 'C' is insulting,” said Amanda Korbe, who suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and is a founder of Patients Not Addicts, a patient advocacy group.

“Achieving Balance in State Pain Policy” was released over the summer by the Pain and Policy Studies Group at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. The report looked at state laws and regulations in 2015 that governed drugs, prescribing and pain care practices.

“This evaluation is meant to identify relevant language in each state’s legislation or regulatory policies that have the potential to influence appropriate treatment of patients with pain, including controlled medication availability,” the study says.

The study gave 13 states an “A” for the quality of their pain care policies:  Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Thirty-one states were given B’s and the rest got C’s. No state was given a failing grade. A complete list of grades for all 50 states and Washington DC can be seen at the end of this story.

“I know that as an Oregon chronic pain patient, I can say my state does not deserve an 'A' right now. We have too many under treated patients, and too many that can't get care at all. For those of us that can't get proper pain management, these high grades are a slap in the face. It invalidates our experiences and struggles to get proper pain management,” said Korbe.

“Would pain management be in such a sorry state if these ‘grades’ actually meant anything? I personally think they are worthless,” said Janice Reynolds, a retired nurse, pain sufferer and patient advocate in Maine, which received an “A” grade.  

Rather than look at state policies and regulations, Reynolds said the study would be more meaningful if it examined whether opioids were being prescribed appropriately, if patients were having a difficult time finding providers, and if untreated pain was leading to more suicides.

“Every state would get a D or F if this was done,” she said.

Study Looked at Pain Policy, Not Practice

“To really look at this comprehensively, it requires a broader analysis to really get an understanding of things,” admits Aaron Gilson, PhD, the lead researcher for the study, which was funded by the American Cancer Society.

Gilson told Pain News Network the study only looked at state policies and regulations as they exist on paper – not how they were being implemented or even if they were effective.

“There’s not necessarily a 100% correlation between policies and practice. The policies in and of themselves don’t create barriers to pain management that we’ve identified. The grade that each state earned is really based on policies that can improve pain management for patients when put into practice,” he said.  

“Sound policy that's not implemented is only words wasted,” says Anne Fuqua, a pain sufferer and patient advocate, whose home state of Alabama was given an “A” grade.

“I'd give Alabama a 'C' for being better than the worst states like Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, West Virginia, Washington, and Oregon.  On paper the policy is excellent and it deserves the 'A' it gets. It just needs to be implemented.”

The study also didn’t look at insurance reimbursement issues or how doctors are responding to federal policies such as the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines, which were not released until this year and are having a chilling effect on both patients and doctors.    

Gilson said the methodology used to prepare the next pain care policy report – which was first released in 2000 – probably needs to be updated.

“That’s the first order of business in terms of continuing to do this, to really understand how policies have changed,” Gilson said. “I think it’s really time to examine the criteria that we use to see to what extent we might be missing policy because we’re not looking at the right thing, because barriers are erected in other ways than when we constructed this type of evaluation 16 years ago.”

Patient Survey Underway

One way to better understand those barriers is to simply ask patients what they are experiencing.

“Legitimate patients report the entire move to reduce (opioid) production and restrict prescribing is having a profoundly negative impact on their treatment protocols. Understanding how they are being impacted is important,” says Terri Lewis, PhD, a patient advocate and researcher.

Lewis is conducting a lengthy and detailed 29-question survey of pain patients to see how they are being impacted by efforts to reduce opioid prescribing. To take her online survey, click here.

Lewis will be able to breakdown the data state-by-state to get a real indication of how pain care policies and practices are being implemented.

“We will get that patient voice into this conversation,” she says. “Reports from patients are important and add value to the public conversation.  Reports will be analyzed and compared to months long data collection to look at trends, the impact of increasing restrictions, the fear of physicians to treat patients in this climate, and the influence of other factors like insurance restrictions and red flagging. This is a complex problem.”