By Pat Anson, Editor
President Barack Obama declined to endorse a sweeping proposal by some governors to put limits on the number of opioid painkillers that doctors can prescribe, saying such a policy would be unfair to rural Americans who don’t have easy access to pain medication or addiction treatment programs.
"If we go to the doctors right now and say 'Don't overprescribe' without providing some mechanisms for people in these communities to deal with the pain that they have or the issues that they have, then we're not going to solve the problem,” Obama said. "Because the pain is real. The mental illness is real. In some cases, addiction is already out there. In some cases these are underserved communities when it comes to the number of doctors and nurses and practitioners."
Over the weekend, a committee of the National Governors Association unanimously voted to develop treatment guidelines that could include limits on opioid prescribing. The proposed guidelines could be voted on by the governors at their next meeting in August.
Although no specific figure was put on the number of opioid doses that could be prescribed at one time, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) said it should be no more than 10 pills for treatment of acute pain. Shumlin has complained in the past that opioids “are passed out like candy in America.”
Shumlin’s proposal was quickly endorsed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a sign that the guidelines would have bipartisan support among the nation’s governors.
President Obama met with the governors Monday at the White House and endorsed their bipartisan approach to addressing the so-called opioid epidemic.
"This is an area where I can get agreement from Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell. That doesn't happen that often," Obama said.
The president of the American Medical Association said Obama was right to question the potential consequences of putting additional restrictions on doctors and patients.
"The complexity of the problem makes it difficult to create a successful one-size-fits-all approach," Dr. Steven Stack said in a statement to the Associated Press.
The proposed guidelines could also include policies similar to those adopted by insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which requires prior authorization for opioid prescriptions. Some patients are also required to use a single pharmacy for their opioid prescriptions. The policies have resulted in a 50 percent reduction in claims for long acting opioids such as OxyContin, and a 25 percent reduction in claims for short-acting opioids, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin and opioid overdoses are killing as many as 78 American a day, although the agency admits its numbers may not be accurate.
Vermont’s Shumlin has emerged as one of the nation’s most vocal critics of opioid prescribing practices. His state and others in the Northeast have been have been hit hard by opioid and heroin overdoses.
“As long as opioid medications remain the default mainstay therapies for chronic pain, these drugs will constitute an ever-present risk for diversion and addiction. We need to address the prescription opioid crisis at its source: opioid medications, as we know them, must be made obsolete,” Shumlin wrote in a recent letter to U.S. senators who are drafting legislation to reform the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Shumlin urged the senators to provide additional funding to NIH for clinical research into affordable and non-addictive alternatives to opioids.