Sen. Wyden Wants to Censor Pain Experts’ Opinions

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

In 2016, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) created an advisory panel called the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force and charged it to “develop a set of best practices for chronic and acute pain management and prescribing pain medication.”

The task force has just released its first draft report that makes several recommendations. One is to update the scientific evidence on which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s controversial 2016 Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain was based. Another goal is to expand areas already included in the guideline.

On December 18, 2018, just before the report was published, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) wrote a letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). In it, he questioned the ability of several experts to serve impartially on the task force because of their alleged connections to the pharmaceutical industry. Specifically, Sen. Wyden worried that opioid manufacturers could exert “financial influence” on those task force members.

Wyden’s concerns about the HHS’s vetting practices would be understandable if the individuals who had been appointed to the advisory panel actually were receiving funds directly from industry. However, that is not the case.

Wyden’s letter specifically mentions Dr. Jianguo Cheng, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM), and Dr. Rollin Gallagher, editor-in-chief of the journal Pain Medicine.

In his letter, Wyden opposes Drs. Cheng and Gallagher’s participation primarily because of their association with AAPM, a professional medical organization that has registered concerns about the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline on people in chronic pain.

Dr. Josh Bloom, the American Council on Science and Health’s Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, recently shared written communications from Drs. Cheng and Gallagher that make it difficult to see any logical reason to object to their participation on the panel.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR)

Since he became president-elect of the AAPM at the end of 2016, Dr. Cheng has had no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, to ensure Pain Medicine’s editorial independence, Dr. Gallagher voluntarily ended his relationships — consulting or advisory— with the industry when he became editor-in-chief more than 10 years ago.

Ironically, the AAPM has long advocated for alternatives to opioids and generally supported the CDC guideline. However, they did have concerns about lack of evidence for some of the CDC’s recommendations. Other organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), have also criticized components of the CDC guideline.

Wyden has previously lodged a similar complaint with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, also challenging members selected for an FDA advisory panel because of a perceived conflict of interest. Following his complaint, Dr. Mary Lynn McPherson, professor at Maryland University School of Medicine, and Dr. Gregory Terman, who was the president of the American Pain Society, were removed from the panel. Here again, neither Dr. McPherson nor Dr. Terman personally received funds from Pharma. The University of Maryland and the American Pain Society, with which they were associated, did.

If Wyden’s reasoning were taken to its logical conclusion, no member of the AMA or any professional organization of pain experts critical of the CDC opioid guideline would be an acceptable member of the advisory panel. Also, most university faculty members would be disqualified because their universities accept funding, in one form or another, from industry.

Some people assume that any association with industry must create bias and cause conflicts of interest. Perhaps so, but that does not apply to the people Wyden is trying to silence. Further, membership in a professional association or serving as a faculty member of a university that receives industry support should not necessarily disqualify an individual to make an important contribution to committees. The goal should be to seek out the most qualified individuals.

There is danger associated with Wyden’s persistent efforts to purge advisory panels of members who have expressed views he doesn’t share. In essence, eliminating people with differing views from advisory panels stacks the deck. It creates a special-interest group that is empowered to influence policy without having to consider differing opinions. The irony is that this very attempt to limit bias creates bias.

Prohibiting experts with no direct connections to industries, like Drs. Cheng, Gallagher, McPherson and Teman, from participating on advisory panels seems to be a punitive gesture. Physicians and researchers, such as these four individuals, who actually care for patients are uniquely equipped to help advisory committees set best practices for pain management. And these panels cannot afford to lose the expertise that these individuals can provide.

If the vetting process includes removing all potential conflicts of interest, then it should also flag anyone who has ties to insurance, including Medicare. Clearly, insurance companies have a financial interest in which treatments are recommended.

Today, Wyden and others are calling to ban anyone with direct or indirect ties to Pharma from serving as a government adviser. Tomorrow, another industry could be targeted. For example, people who work in energy or university researchers who receive industry grants to study the weather might not be permitted to advise the government on climate change. This would likely mean the committees would be comprised of the least knowledgeable individuals.

Hopefully, the HHS and other governmental bodies will consider viewpoints from a broad swath of qualified experts and not just those whose perspectives they endorse. A functioning democracy must value and listen to all views.  

Lynn Webster.jpg

Lynn Webster, MD, is a senior editor at Pain Medicine. He is also a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with pharmaceutical companies. Webster is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

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