Oregon’s Opioid Tapering Plan Delayed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A controversial plan that could force thousands of Medicaid patients in Oregon off opioid pain medication has been put on hold because of a medical expert’s potential conflict of interest.

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Patrick Allen asked the Health Evidence Review Commission (HERC) to table a final vote on changes in opioid policy until his agency could get an independent review of the recommendations.

At issue is a task force plan to limit Medicaid coverage of opioids to just 90-days for fibromyalgia and lower back pain. Patients currently on opioids longer than 90 days would be required to taper off the medications and switch to alternative therapies such as acupuncture and physical therapy that would be covered by Medicaid.

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The plan has drawn nationwide criticism from chronic pain patients, advocates and pain management experts who say forced tapering would “exacerbate suffering for thousands of patients.”

Allen said he learned this week that Dr. Catherine Livingston, a family medicine physician who serves as a contracted medical consultant to HERC, is also a paid consultant to the Kaiser Center for Health Research and the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Livingston helped draft the opioid coverage proposal.

“I have requested the HERC to remove a chronic pain management proposal from today’s agenda to allow OHA time to seek independent review to ensure no potential conflicts of interest compromised the way the chronic pain benefit proposal was developed for the HERC’s consideration,” Allen said in a statement.

“It is vital for the Oregon Health Plan to cover safe and effective therapies to help people reduce and manage chronic pain. Yet it is also vital that Oregonians have full confidence in the decisions the HERC makes to assess the effectiveness of health care procedures.”

No timetable was set for the independent review. At a HERC hearing earlier this week, The Bend Bulletin reported that state officials defended the opioid policy change.

“I think the potential harms associated with opioids have become clear,” said Dr. Dana Hargunani, chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority. “Harms shown by the evidence about tapering are less clear.”

But in a joint letter signed by over 100 pain management experts, Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of pain medicine at Stanford University, urged the commission not to mandate “non-consensual forced tapering.”

“We fear the HERC’s proposal is, in essence, a large-scale experiment on medically, psychologically and economically vulnerable Oregonians, at a moment when Oregon has already seen a significant reduction in opioid prescribing and prescription opioid-related deaths,” Mackey wrote. “The evidence supports that this proposal represents an alarming step backward in the delivery of patient-centered pain care for the state of Oregon.”

Other members of the task force questioned the distinction between forced and voluntary tapers.

“I can’t tell you whether the tapers I do in my practice are voluntary or involuntary,” said Dr. Roger Chou, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University who was one of the co-authors of the controversial CDC opioid prescribing guideline.  “I explain why I think that’s important, that it’s a safety issue, and I guide them through the process. I try to be empathetic, but they don’t want to taper.

“I don’t think there’s anything compassionate about leaving people on drugs that could potentially harm them.”