CDC: Guideline ‘Not Intended to Deny Any Patients Opioid Therapy’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the agency’s controversial opioid guideline was never intended to deny prescription opioids to chronic pain patients.

Deborah Dowell, MD, is one of the co-authors of the 2016 guideline and the chief medical officer for the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. In a February 28th letter made public this week, Dowell attempted to dispel the widespread belief that the guideline is a mandatory policy for all pain patients.  

“The Guideline is not intended to deny any patients who suffer with chronic pain from opioid therapy as an option for pain management. Rather, the Guideline is intended to ensure that clinicians and patients consider all safe and effective treatment options for payments,” Dowell wrote. “CDC encourages physicians to continue to use their clinical judgement and base treatment on what they know about their patients, including the use of opioids if determined to be the best course of treatment.”

Dowell’s letter was addressed to three medical associations – the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), American Society of Hematology (ASH) and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network – which were concerned that the CDC guideline was being misapplied by insurers to patients with cancer and sickle cell disease.

In February, the three groups sent a joint letter to Dowell asking the CDC to release an immediate clarification that the guideline was not intended for patients in active cancer treatment.

“Although the CDC guideline clearly states that the guideline is not intended to apply to this population, many payers are still inaccurately applying the CDC guidelines to patients in active (cancer) treatment,” the letter said.

Dowell responded a few days later with her own letter -- stating that the guideline was never intended to deny “any patients” opioid medication, but that alternate pain therapies should be considered.

Her letter also noted that two clinical practice guidelines for cancer pain (here and here) have been published or updated since the release of the CDC guideline.

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“This clarification from CDC is critically important because, while the agency’s guideline clearly states that it is not intended to apply to patients during active cancer and sickle cell disease treatment, many payers have been inappropriately using it to make opioid coverage determinations for those exact populations,” ASCO Chief Executive Officer Clifford Hudis, MD, said in a statement.

“People with sickle cell disease suffer from severe, chronic pain, which is debilitating on its own without the added burden of having to constantly appeal to the insurance companies every time a pain crisis hits and the initial request is denied,” said ASH President Roy Silverstein, MD. “We appreciate CDC’s acknowledgement that the challenges of managing severe and chronic pain in conditions such as sickle cell disease require special consideration, and we hope payers will take the CDC’s clarification into account to ensure that patients’ pain management needs are covered.”

The CDC guideline is voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians treating chronic non-cancer pain. But after its release in March 2016, the guideline quickly metastasized throughout the U.S. healthcare system and became a mandatory policy for many insurers, pharmacies, states and practitioners.

‘Even Cancer Patients Suffer’

Many cancer patients who responded to PNN’s recent survey on the CDC guideline said they were denied opioid medication or not given enough for pain control.

“I'm fighting cancer a second time and I'm not being properly medicated, can't find a pain management (doctor) that will take me on. I have days where I am suffering and have no quality of life!” one patient wrote. 

“I'm a brain cancer patient and the CDC guideline has scared every doctor and oncologist in Connecticut. Even cancer patients suffer and they don't care because that's the law,” another said. 

“I was told two weeks ago that I have lung cancer and still cannot get anything for pain,” wrote another patient. 

“I had to go a year without pain meds and I am a stage 4 head and neck cancer survivor. The sudden withdrawal almost killed me,” said one patient. “Thank God I found a pain management doctor that understands head and neck cancer and the devastating effects it leaves forever. But even he is limited.” 

“I went through 6 weeks of chemo and radiation. My treatment caused muscle and joint pain that on some nights and days are so bad I wish I would have never survived my cancer. They have me on gabapentin. It is okay but does not stop the pain,” wrote another cancer survivor.

None of this is news to the CDC. Within months of the guideline’s release, CDC was warned by its own public relations consultants that “some doctors are following these guidelines as strict law” and that some patients “are now left with little to no pain management.” In a joint letter to the CDC, hundreds of healthcare providers also warned the agency that within a year of the guideline’s release “there was evidence of widespread misapplication” of its recommendations.

But except for an occasional letter -- like the one from Dowell -- there has been no systematic, publicized effort by the CDC to remind insurers, pharmacies and providers that the guideline is voluntary and exempts cancer patients. The agency has also failed to keep its pledge to study the impact of the guideline on patients and to revise it in future updates.