CDC Director Says Agency Will ‘Clarify’ Opioid Guideline

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, has for the first time suggested that his agency may be preparing to make changes to its controversial opioid prescribing guideline.

“CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms,” Redfield wrote in an April 10 letter to Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3). 

Redfield was responding to a March 6 letter from HP3 signed by over 300 healthcare professionals urging the CDC to make a “bold clarification” of the voluntary guideline, which has been implemented as a mandatory policy by many insurers, pharmacies, states and practitioners. As a result, many chronic pain patients have been denied or forcibly tapered off opioid medication and become disabled or bedridden. Some have turned to alcohol and illegal drugs for pain relief.

The situation has become so dire, the Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning this week cautioning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid medication. The FDA said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients, including withdrawal, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.    

ROBERT REDFIELD, md

ROBERT REDFIELD, md

“The Guideline does not endorse mandated or abrupt dose reduction or discontinuation, as these actions can result in patient harm,” Redfield said in his letter, which was released a day after the FDA warning. “The Guideline includes recommendations for clinicians to work with patients to taper or reduce dosage only when patient harm outweighs patient benefit of opioid therapy.”

Redfield has been CDC director for a little over a year. The letter is his most extensive public comment to date on the opioid guideline, which was only intended for primary care physicians treating chronic, non-cancer pain. Redfield emphasized that doctors and patients should collaborate on tapering plans, but only “if a patient would like to taper.”

“The Guideline also recommends that that the plan be based on the patient’s goals and concerns and that tapering be slow enough to minimize opioid withdrawal,” Redfield said.

“We are so grateful to the CDC for its essential clarification,” said Sally Satel, MD, of the American Enterprise Institute and Yale University, who helped draft the HP3 letter. “Now it’s time for the federal, state, and non-governmental institutions that have invoked the CDC’s authority to push some traumatic changes to care to reverse course.”

‘Closing the Barn Door’

But critics wonder why it took the CDC three years to acknowledge that the guideline has been widely implemented beyond its initial intent.

“I find it striking that, while CDC has made statements from time to time about their intent that the guideline not be turned into legislation and regulations, this is the boldest statement they've made yet, and it's coming only after more than 35 states have legislated some part of the guideline, not to mention actions by payers,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, former Executive Director of the Association of Integrative Pain Management.

“If they truly did not anticipate that this was going to happen, then they were incredibly naive, because many of us made public statements predicting these outcomes at the time the guideline was released. I know there are some patient advocates who hope this will lead to the unwinding of some of the legislation, but I think that's a very long-term project. In other words, it's a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped.”

When it released its opioid guideline in 2016, the CDC pledged to evaluate its intended and unintended consequences and said it would make changes to the recommendations if needed. Redfield’s letter contains a 3-page enclosure that summarizes the agency’s efforts to evaluate the impact of the guideline. A careful reading of the enclosure, however, shows that most of the studies underway are not being conducted by the CDC itself and that they focus primarily on whether the guideline has been successful in reducing opioid prescriptions — not whether patients are being harmed by it.

“Honestly, I don't think it's such a bad thing that CDC is supporting outside work to assess the impact of the guideline. Having independent researchers who may not be as likely to feel a need to defend the guideline can only be helpful,” said Twillman.

“I sense this is a political delaying action to avoid having to admit that CDC was fundamentally wrong,” said Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, Director of Research for the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). “The Director of CDC letter has doubled down on several ‘initiatives’ which appear to assume that the original assumptions and declarations of the guidelines were correct -- which they weren't, and for which there is abundant published proof that they weren't.”

Lawhern wrote an open letter to Redfield this week, calling for CDC guideline to be revoked, not just clarified, because many of its key assumptions about the addictive potential of prescription opioids are wrong.

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 85 percent said the guideline has made their pain and quality of life worse. Nearly half say they have considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated. Many patients are hoarding opioids because they fear losing access to them and some are turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.