By Pat Anson, Editor
The Washington Legal Foundation is “keeping its options open” on a potential lawsuit to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from implementing its controversial guidelines for opioid prescribing. At issue is whether the CDC violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) by developing the guidelines in secret and with little public input.
The CDC contends the guidelines are urgently needed to stop the so-called epidemic of opioid addiction and overdoses, while millions of chronic pain patients fear they will lose access to opioids if the guidelines are adopted.
Last week a “workgroup” appointed by the CDC recommended to the agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) that the guidelines by adopted with few changes. The 10-member workgroup spent only three weeks reviewing a dozen complex guidelines, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. The panel met four times during that period and all of its meetings were closed to the public.
“Why is CDC so afraid of transparency here? That’s my question,” asked Mark Chenoweth, general counsel to the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), a pro-business group that has threatened to sue the agency for its “culture of secrecy” and “blatant violations” of FACA.
FACA clearly states that “each advisory committee meeting shall be open to the public,” as well as any records, reports, minutes or other documents provided to or created by the committee.
The CDC has taken the position that the BSC is an advisory committee, but the workgroup is not.
“The BSC charged the workgroup with developing a report of its observations on the draft guideline and its underlying evidence,” said CDC spokesperson Courtney Leland. “Under FACA, the time for public input is when the BSC meets to deliberate on the work prepared by the workgroup. This meeting, held on January 28, was a public meeting announced in the Federal Register, and included a public comment period.“
But the WLF’s legal team disputes that interpretation of the law.
“I don’t see why you can provide input to the government through secret deliberations simply because you’re providing your advice to an advisory committee rather than to the government itself. The whole point of the law is to make sure that advice that comes to the government and is relied on by government is a product of open deliberations,” said WLF chief counsel Richard Samp, who believes the guidelines were quickly reviewed to prevent any further delays in their implementation.
The CDC planned to adopt the guidelines in January, but was forced to delay them after widespread criticism about its secrecy and lack of transparency during the guidelines' development.
“They want this to go on quickly. Obviously their existing advisory committee doesn’t have the expertise on its own, so it had to go outside of its ranks to do it,” said Samp. “But it realized that if the group was going to meet four or five times, it was going to drag on for months. And so the only way to do it quickly was to do what they have done.”
“If one wanted to test the legality of this sort of working group workaround on FACA, this is an excellent fact pattern on which to test it,” said Chenowith.
Asked by Pain News Network if the WLF would go to court before or after the guidelines are implemented, Chenowith and Samp were non-committal, but hinted they were prepared to take action in federal court in Atlanta, where the CDC is based.
“It never does any good to wait until final agency action. By that time people have really suffered some severe damage,” said Samp. “I assume one’s interest in these sort of cases is to prevent the agency from adopting guidelines and that’s why you sue early to try to prevent them from taking into account the recommendations before they make their final decision. One could easily file that in federal district court in Atlanta if one wanted to.”
WLF has a lengthy history of taking the government to court for regulations and laws effecting free speech, the environment, health care, and drugs. WLF describes itself as a public interest law firm “that regularly litigates to ensure that federal administrative agencies comply with statutes designed to ensure procedural fairness.” It often supports business groups and companies in litigation against government agencies, and has represented or acted in behalf of pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.
"We’re long-standing supporters of WLF, in addition to several other business and legal organizations. We’ve provided them with unrestricted grants," a spokesman for Purdue Pharma told Pain News Network.
That connection to a major opioid producer has led to insinuations that WLF and other organizations that accept funding from the so-called “opioid lobby” are somehow tainted. That charge is often made by Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), which supports the guidelines and had some of its board members on CDC committees that helped draft them.
A recent story by the Associated Press pointed out that nearly a third of the members of the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee have financial connections to opioid makers. That same committee criticized the CDC for developing the opioid guidelines with little scientific evidence to support them.
“The apparent conflicts of interest on the panel underscore the pervasive reach of pharmaceutical-industry dollars, even among federal advisers who are supposed to be carefully vetted for such connections before serving,” the AP story said.
The article failed to point out that some of the committee members most critical of the CDC are federal employees of the Food and Drug Administration and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), who as government workers are not allowed to accept financial contributions.
“I would be remiss and I’m certain so would many of my government colleagues if I didn’t go back to my director and say there’s a report coming out of the CDC that has very low quality of evidence,” said Richard Ricciardi, AHRQ, during a December meeting. “That’s an embarrassment to the government.”
The AP story also didn’t mention that the CDC itself has a foundation that accepts funding from healthcare companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Amgen, Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Quest Diagnostics and Pfizer, some of which stand to benefit from stricter opioid guidelines because they offer non-opioid treatments for chronic pain. The CDC Foundation accepted over $157 million from donors last year.