How Has CDC Opioid Guideline Affected You?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Colomunist

The controversial CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain was released on March 15, 2016 in an effort to curb the opioid crisis. While “largely supportive” of the guideline at the time, the American Medical Association had concerns about how it would be implemented.

“We remain concerned about the evidence base informing some of the recommendations; conflicts with existing state laws and product labeling; and possible unintended consequences associated with implementation, which includes access and insurance coverage limitations for non-pharmacologic treatments, especially comprehensive care; and the potential effects of strict dosage and duration limits on patient care,” said Patrice Harris, MD, then board chair-elect of the AMA.

Dr. Harris proved to be prescient. In the last three years, insurance companies, healthcare systems and dozens of states have imposed limits – based on the CDC guideline -- on the quantity and dose of opioids dispensed to people with pain.

Oregon has even drafted a plan to stop opioid prescribing for many Medicaid patients and require that they use alternative treatments. Here was my response to Oregon's plan, in which I warned that “forcing opioid tapers is not an appropriate or compassionate solution” and could drive some patients to suicide.

Pharmacies are also imposing limits. In 2017, CVS announced it would limit the number of pills for new patients with acute pain to 7 days’ supply, saying “the CDC Guideline should become the default approach to prescribing opiates.”

That same year, the giant prescription benefits manager Express Scripts also started limiting new opioid prescriptions and set a dosage limit “based on CDC prescribing guidelines.” 

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This January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made it more difficult for over a million Medicare patients to receive doses above 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) which they consider a high dose. CMS also imposed a seven-day limit on all patients receiving a new opioid prescription. The CMS rules are based on evidence “cited in the CDC Guideline.”  

‘Revisit This Guideline’

When it first published its recommendations, CDC pledged to “revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available” and said it was “committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.” 

In a recent statement to PNN, the CDC said there are “several studies underway with external researchers” evaluating the impact of its guideline on opioid prescribing and patient outcomes. The agency also said it recently commissioned a review by Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) “to determine what new scientific evidence has been released” on the effectiveness of opioid and non-opioid pain relievers.

In the meantime, no revision of the guideline is being planned.    

The CDC guideline was well-intentioned and included many wise principles of opioid prescribing. But it appears to be more about limiting the supply of opioids than improving clinical care for pain patients. Limiting opioid access may be good for some patients, but for many it means more pain and a worsened quality of life.  

There is little evidence that limiting supply reduces opioid addiction and overdoses. Opioid prescribing in the United States has significantly declined since 2012, yet opioid overdoses continue rising – primarily due to illicit fentanyl, heroin and counterfeit drugs, not prescription opioids. The CDC's reevaluation of the guideline should take this into consideration.  

In 2018, the National Institutes of Health’s Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee recommended that the CDC "engage with advocates and patients, who have been negatively impacted by the unintended consequences of the CDC guideline." It also called on the FDA and the CDC to work together to "update and improve" the guideline.  

Rather than seeing the CDC guideline as a resource or helpful tool, many prescribers live in fear of it. The DEA now routinely monitors prescription drug databases, looking for “red flags” that indicate a doctor is prescribing opioids at doses above those recommended by the CDC. The AMA last year took a stand against this “inappropriate use” of the guideline, and passed a resolution stating that doctors should not be subject to criminal prosecution or other penalties solely for prescribing opioids at higher dosages.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn 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 represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.