What Will Trump Election Mean for Pain Care?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The day after one of the biggest political upsets in American history, millions of chronic pain patients are wondering what a Donald Trump administration will mean for them.

President-elect Trump has repeatedly vowed to “immediately repeal and replace Obamacare,” but has not clearly defined what he would replace the Affordable Care Act with. Trump has also supported reductions in the supply of oxycodone, hydrocodone and other Schedule II opioids.

But perhaps the biggest change will be in leadership positions at federal agencies that set health care policies. That happens whenever a new administration takes office, but the changing of the guard this time will almost certainly mean the departure of several politically appointed administrators who played key roles in setting policies that many pain sufferers consider anti-patient.   

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell – who presided over key policy decisions such as the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines and Medicare’s decision to drop pain questions from patient surveys – will be replaced.

Also likely to depart are CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, FDA commissioner Dr. Robert Califf, acting DEA administrator Chuck Rosenberg, and Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. All have endorsed policies harmful to pain patients.  

Murthy recently sent letters to over 2 million physicians urging them “not to prescribe opioids as a first-line treatment for chronic pain.”

Rosenberg has called medical marijuana "a joke" and recently tried to criminalize kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance, a move the DEA withdrew after widespread opposition from the public and some members of Congress.

In his short time as FDA commissioner, Califf has overruled some of the FDA’s own experts in endorsing the CDC guidelines and has instituted a series of policies at FDA aimed at reducing opioid prescribing.

Frieden’s departure from the CDC will likely lessen the influence of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) at the agency. PROP founder Dr. Andrew Kolodny has a long association with Frieden, having worked for him when Frieden was commissioner of New York City’s Health Department. PROP President Dr. Jane Ballantyne continues to serve as a consultant to CDC, despite complaints that she has a conflict of interest.

The new heads of the CDC and DEA will be appointed by president-elected Trump, while the HHS Secretary, FDA commissioner, and the Surgeon General are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

According to Politico, one of the front runners to be nominated by Trump as HHS Secretary is Dr. Ben Carson, a former Republican presidential candidate and retired brain surgeon, who Trump has called a “brilliant” physician.

"I hope that he will be very much involved in my administration in the coming years," Trump said at a campaign rally.

Other names being mentioned for HHS Secretary are Florida Gov. Rick Scott, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Rich Bagger, a pharmaceutical executive on leave from Calgene who is the executive director of Trump's transition team.

None of this means that a Trump administration will reverse any of the pain care policies at CDC, FDA and other federal agencies. Like most Republicans, Trump wants to reduce government regulations, not increase them. But as PNN reported last month, the president-elect has already indicated he supports measures to limit the supply of opioids.

“DEA should reduce the amount of Schedule II opioids -- drugs like oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl -- that can be made and sold in the U.S. We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but use 80 percent of the prescription opioids,” Trump said in prepared remarks at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. “I would also restore accountability to our Veterans Administration. Too many of our brave veterans have been prescribed these dangerous and addictive drugs by a VA that should have been paying them better attention.”

Trump wants the FDA to speed up the approval of opioid pain medication with abuse deterrent formulas. And he wants to increase the number of patients that a doctor can treat with addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine (Suboxone).

"The FDA has been far too slow to approve abuse-deterring drugs. And when the FDA has approved these medications, the rules have been far too restrictive, severely limiting the number of authorized prescribers as well as the number of patients each doctor can treat," he said.

The president-elect has also pledged to stop the flow of fentanyl and other illegal drugs into the country.

“We will close the shipping loopholes that China and others are exploiting to send dangerous drugs across our borders in the hands of our own postal service. These traffickers use loopholes in the Postal Service to mail fentanyl and other drugs to users and dealers in the U.S.” Trump said.

“When I won the New Hampshire primary, I promised the people of New Hampshire that I would stop drugs from pouring into your communities. I am now doubling-down on that promise, and can guarantee you – we will not only stop the drugs from pouring in, but we will help all of those people so seriously addicted get the assistance they need to unchain themselves.”

Trump has personal dealings with addiction, having lost a brother to alcoholism at age 43. Watching the long downward spiral of his older brother Fred led Trump to a life-long aversion to alcohol, drugs and tobacco.