What Doctors Say About CDC Opioid Guideline

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over two-thirds of healthcare providers are worried about being prosecuted for prescribing opioid medication and many have stopped treating chronic pain, according to a new survey by Pain News Network on the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline. One in four providers say they’ve lost a pain patient to suicide since the guideline was released in 2016.

A total of 68 doctors and 89 healthcare providers participated in the online survey. While that’s a relatively small sample size in comparison to the nearly 6,000 patients who took the survey, the providers come from a broad spectrum of healthcare, including pain management, primary care, palliative care, surgery, pharmacy, nursing and addiction treatment.

The CDC guideline discourages the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain and cautions doctors not to exceed a daily dose of 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) because of the risk of addiction and overdose. Although voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, the guideline has been widely implemented as mandatory throughout the U.S. healthcare system.

Many doctors believe the guideline limits their ability to treat patients and has not improved the quality of pain care in the United States.  

“There are reasonable elements to the guidelines which should be preserved. However, setting an upper dose limit, especially one so low, severely interferes with titrating the opioids to their most effective doses, which is often much higher than 90 MME,” said a pain management doctor.

“The guidelines became hard rules for many insurance companies and pharmacies. Patients with pain have suffered in consequence,” said a palliative care doctor. 

“I see chronic pain patients all day that do not have their pain well controlled. It is heart breaking,” said another provider.

HAS CDC GUIDELINE IMPROVED QUALITY OF PAIN CARE?

“They are horribly ill-conceived. If we thought our previous approach to pain management was flawed, we surely will soon realize that these guidelines are worse,” said a pain management physician. “A patient told me two weeks ago that his friend needs repeated (coronary bypass) surgery, but now the hospital system treats post-surgical pain with Tylenol. This is barbaric.” 

An addiction treatment doctor summed up his feelings about the guideline with two words: “Misguided and draconian.”

Pain Contracts and Drug Tests

Nearly two-thirds of providers surveyed require patients to sign a “pain contract” before they get opioids. Over half have discharged a patient for failing a drug test or not following the rules. And nearly one in five mistakenly believe the guideline is mandatory.

  • 64% require patients to sign a pain contract or take drug tests

  • 52% have discharged patients for failing drug test or not following rules

  • 45% use more non-opioid therapies

  • 18% believe CDC guideline is mandatory

  • 17% refer more patients to addiction treatment

  • 10% stopped treating chronic pain patients

  •   7% closed practice or retired due to concerns about opioids

“I feel like the blow-back to the CDC guideline is just as misplaced as the misuse of it. The recommendations are good science,” said a pharmacy provider. “There are lots of people - prescribers, pharmacists, insurance companies, law enforcement - who have misapplied the guidelines and are practicing poorly with them as an excuse. That is not the fault of the guidelines themselves, but the fault of poor education and dissemination.”

“These guidelines came from people that do not serve as clinicians to patients,” said one provider. “I have witnessed patients being abruptly cut off from medications they've been on for years and without any notice. Some have gone through extreme withdrawal to the point of death from the complications of withdrawal.”

Disparity in Prescribing

The survey found a wide disparity in how providers have adjusted to the guideline’s recommendations.

Nearly half still prescribe opioids above 90 MME when they feel it’s appropriate, while 20 percent only prescribe at or below the 90 MME threshold. Fourteen percent have stopped prescribing opioids altogether.

“We are getting dumped on by all the PCP’s (primary care providers). They no longer want anything to do with patients on opioids,” said a pain management doctor. “What is medicine coming to that the number of opioids is more important than a patient’s well-being?”

“Acute pain is now being undertreated, as well as many who have been denied pain control with opiates. These patients are being harmed. All of us prescribers know that the majority of overdoses are from illegal opiates from other countries. We are not stupid,” wrote a provider who works in urgent care.

HOW HAS CDC GUIDELINE AFFECTED YOUR OPIOID PRESCRIBING?

Chilling Effect

Doctors are well aware they are under scrutiny. The Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies monitor prescription drug databases (PDMPs) to track opioid prescriptions. While PDMPs were initially promoted as a way to protect physicians from “doctor shopping” patients, they are now routinely used by the DEA to identify, threaten and raid the offices of doctors who prescribe high doses – even when there is no evidence of a patient being harmed by the drugs.       

“PDMPs are tracking prescribing based upon CDC guidelines. That has an adverse effect upon prescribers who end up being profiled and in jeopardy of arrest and prosecution,” a doctor wrote.

“They have weaponized the political and legal manifestations of appropriately treating chronic pain,“ said a pain management doctor.

“They have shamed high dose long term opioid patients and treat the prescriber like a bad guy. They are clueless to the fact that majority of deaths have always been street addicts and not legit pain patients. The guidelines embolden medical regulators to come after doctors, resulting in chilling effect on prescribers,” said an addiction treatment doctor.

The crackdown has also had a chilling effect on pharmacies and insurers, who are just as eager to stay out of trouble. Nearly three out of four providers (73%) say they’ve had a pharmacy refuse to fill an opioid prescription and 70 percent say an insurer has refused to pay for a pain treatment.

“Why does CVS, a drug store that sells NSAIDs without restriction, have control of how I treat my patient?” asked one provider.

“The insurance companies are acting beyond the CDC guidelines with their hard limits on dosing, even sending threatening letters to doctors,” said a physician. 

“Pharmacies and insurances are dictating how we treat our patients without the medical ability or authority to make diagnosis or treatment plans. Each patient is different,” wrote one provider. 

“The guideline is extremely narrow-minded and reactionary. Yes, opioid addiction has become a huge problem, and yes, some physicians are partially to blame because of inappropriate prescribing, but plenty more physicians prescribe opioids appropriately. Now many of those doctors are scared to do their job, leaving patients in unnecessary pain,” said a doctor.

Biased CDC Advisors

Many providers believe the guideline advisors assembled by the CDC were biased and unqualified to make recommendations for pain management. Their initial meetings were closed to the public and the agency refused to disclose who the advisors were. Later it was revealed that five board members of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group, were involved in developing the guideline, including two that belonged to a key committee that helped draft it.

“They are an abomination that has been foisted on the world by PROP via the CDC and have no real clinical or evidence based background, yet are carried forward by political and bureaucratic purveyors of untruth,” said a pain management doctor.

“I believe this guideline was made by a panel without any pain doctors. How can they know what is best? They have contributed to stigma, and now patients instead of safely being monitored by pain clinics are turning to the streets and dying from illegal opioids. The CDC then uses that data to inflate the so-called epidemic,” said another provider.

“The CDC never weighed the information from the pain treating community. The consequences were predictable. Poor quality of life for the pain patients and continuation of the opiate epidemic from imported fentanyl. The guidelines were a travesty,” a pain management doctor wrote.

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“The CDC did not have the legal authority to issue the guidelines in the first place. They should be declared unconstitutional and burned. Dosing should be following the FDA published guidelines for a particular medication,” said a pharmacy provider.

‘Where Are the Followup Studies?’

When it released the guideline in 2016, CDC said it was “committed to evaluating the guideline” and would make revisions if there were unintended consequences. A CDC spokesperson recently told PNN several studies are underway evaluating the guideline, but gave no indication that any changes are imminent.

“Where are the followup studies to monitor the incidence of patients committing suicide, looking for illicit drugs on the streets, overuse of NSAIDs, (acetaminophen) with organ damage and death, increased disability, loss of quality of life, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, worsening of co-morbid conditions due to weight gain, inability to exercise or sleep, adverse effects on relationships?” asked a pain management doctor. “The guidelines are effective at saving money for the payors. That, I fear, is why there is no serious effort to revise the guidelines.”

For a breakdown of some of the other key findings from our survey, click here. To see what patients had to say about the guideline, click here. Our sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to participate.