Can Pain Patients Sue the CDC?

By Carol Levy, PNN Columnist

Almost every report on the CDC opioid guideline that I’ve seen online gets this response from pain patients: “Class action lawsuit! Sue the CDC!” 

Many doctors cite the CDC’s opioid guideline when they stop writing prescriptions for opioids or reduce the amount they prescribe. Many of their patients say the tapering left them bedridden and unable to work because the pain returned to unbearable levels. Some even attempted or completed suicide as a result of no longer having the relief that opioids gave them.  

Is that enough grounds for a class action lawsuit against the CDC?  I am not an attorney, but I wondered if there is a basis for such a lawsuit.

Based on my research, the pain community does not meet the necessary legal criteria to do this.  

Aside from the difficulties of suing a federal agency, one of the many rule requirements in federal court to certify a class action lawsuit is this: “the class must show that the defendant acted in a way generally applicable to class members.” 

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Few of us can point to the CDC guideline as the specific reason their doctor is no longer prescribing opioids at the same dose. It would need to be proven that all members of the class were treated in essentially the same way by the defendant CDC.

And it is doctors who changed their prescribing routines, not the CDC. Therefore, it appears we cannot form the requisite “class.” 

In addition, the CDC’s clarification of the guideline in June passed the buck by blaming individual practitioners for the guideline’s misuse:

“Unfortunately, some policies and practices purportedly derived from the guideline have in fact been inconsistent with, and often go beyond, its recommendations. A consensus panel has highlighted these inconsistencies, which include inflexible application of recommended dosage and duration thresholds and policies that encourage hard limits and abrupt tapering of drug dosages, resulting in sudden opioid discontinuation or dismissal of patients from a physician’s practice.”

So are there no actions we can take?

A recent decision by the New Hampshire Board of Medicine is one example of what happens when we do act. A patient reported his doctor to the board for refusing to continue prescribing opioids that had greatly helped his pain. As a result of the tapering, the patient’s pain became so unbearable he threatened suicide. At that point, the doctor refused to prescribe anymore opioids to the patient and dropped him. 

The board found that the doctor violated the ethical standards of professional conduct. He was fined, reprimanded, and ordered to take classes in pain management and record keeping.  

Another action is simply writing a letter, emailing or calling your federal and state representatives. Some of these people are working, intentionally or not, to hurt us.

The latest is a bill from Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana. Neither have medical degrees, yet they have introduced a bill that instructs the FDA to tell doctors that opioids are "not intended for the treatment of chronic pain" except for cancer pain, end-of-life care or when no other pain treatment is effective.  

By telling our stories, by getting the authorities and legislators to understand what chronic pain is, and how it affects not only us but our families, community and the country, we can keep up the pressure. By submitting our complaints or filing lawsuits against individual doctors, we can be the voice of change. 

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.”  Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

This column 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.