Feds Using ‘Cone of Silence’ Again for Rx Opioid Review

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Federal health officials are at it once again, releasing a draft report on the risks and benefits of opioid pain medication without seeking substantive input from the public or medical community.

So far they’ve done it with no public hearings, feeble attempts at soliciting public comment, and without disclosing the identities of the experts they consulted with.

If that reminds you of the CDC’s botched rollout of its opioid guideline in a comically secretive webinar that one critic compared to Get Smart’s “Cone of Silence” – you’re not alone.

Or as agent Maxwell Smart said to his boss, You know this thing doesn't work, why do you always insist on using it?”

This time it’s not the CDC, but a little-known research agency in the Department of Health and Human Services called the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

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Last month, AHRQ quietly released a 287-page draft report on the effectiveness of opioid medication in treating chronic pain.

Like the CDC, the AHRQ concluded that evidence on the long-term effectiveness of opioids is limited, but there was enough evidence to warn of “increased risk of serious harms” at high doses.  Even when used short-term for acute pain, the report found “no differences between opioids versus nonopioid medications in improvement in pain function, mental health status, sleep, or depression.” In other words, Tylenol is just as effective as Vicodin.

Who is the author of the AHRQ report? What experts were involved in drafting it? Who are the peer reviewers? We don’t know because the AHRQ won’t identify any of the participants until the final report is released.

According to the draft report, “Key Informants” and “Technical Experts” that consulted with AHRQ were required to disclose financial or professional conflicts of interest. But even if they had conflicts, they were not automatically disqualified by AHRQ because “individuals with potential conflicts may be retained” due to their “unique clinical or content expertise.”

‘Identifying Authors Not Essential’

An AHRQ spokesman told PNN that the agency does not identify the researchers and experts it consults with until after a final report is released.

“This policy is aimed at helping the authors maintain their independence by not being subject to lobbying by industry reps or others with conflicts of interest, either financial or intellectual,” Bruce Seeman said in an email. “AHRQ maintains that identifying the authors is not essential to the primary goal of receiving comments on the science of the reports.”

But critics of the policy say the refusal to identify participants only raises doubts and suspicion. It is also eerily similar to what the CDC did in 2015, when it released a draft of its controversial opioid guideline without identifying the “core expert group” it consulted with.

It turned out few of the CDC’s experts had any experience in clinical pain management and several had conflicts, such as being affiliated with Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group. Faced with allegations that it violated federal open meeting laws, the CDC created a new expert panel and delayed releasing the final guideline for several months.

“I would hope that they, the AHRQ, would be able to provide far more notice and transparency as it relates to both substance and process than what was provided by the CDC and its secret Core Expert Group in the development of their ‘Guideline’ for Prescribing Opioids,” said Stephen Ziegler, PhD, a Professor Emeritus at Purdue University. “Governments rarely evaluate their own policies to see if they work or cause unintended harms. That needs to change.”  

“This failure to identify authorship in the draft essentially disqualifies the document. Without knowing who wrote and reviewed this document, we cannot identify their biases or predispositions,” said Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, a patient advocate with the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP).

“If anyone among these groups was also among the writers group that supported CDC in 2015-2016, then we have reason for concern that the AHRQ comparative review will be equally biased and unsupported by real research. It should be noted that no less an authority than the American Medical Association has publicly repudiated many of the assumptions and all of the core methodology incorporated into the Guidelines.” 

Lawhern emailed a “flash alert” to ATIP members this morning, urging them to comment on the AHRQ draft report while there is still time. Unlike other federal agencies that routinely seek public comments in the Federal Register, where they would get broader exposure, the AHRQ is seeking comments on its own website. Comments will be accepted until Tuesday, November 12 at noon EDT. 

“We need large numbers of knowledgeable medical professionals, patients and caregivers to file protest at the public gateway,” said Lawhern, who learned of the AHRQ report after being tipped off by a patient. 

The AHRQ sent out no press releases notifying the news media that it was soliciting comments on the draft report. In an online search, this reporter could find no news coverage of the report itself.  

“AHRQ doesn’t issue press releases, publish newsletter articles or pursue other high visibility promotion of draft reports. We normally save those efforts for final products,” said Seeman.

The AHRQ spokesman said the agency did send a mass email on October 17th to about 100,000 subscribers notifying them that the opioid report was available for comment. 

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Lawhern says there was not enough transparency or public involvement in the draft process.

“This draft report should be withdrawn immediately and re-published on the regulations.gov website after announcement in the Federal Register.  When re-published, the names and qualifications of all ‘key experts’ and peer reviewers should be disclosed,” said Lawhern.

Limited Evidence

In drafting the report, the AHRQ’s experts reviewed over 150 clinical studies and reviews of pain patients prescribed opioids. Few of the studies were long-term, an evidence gap that exists not only for opioids but for all medications used to treat pain. Long-term studies are lacking because it would be unethical for researchers to knowingly treat someone’s severe pain with a placebo — which would essentially amount to torture.

The old saying that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” would seem to apply to the effectiveness of opioid medication, but not in the AHRQ’s draft report. “Limited evidence” is repeatedly cited as a reason not to use opioids, while similar low-quality evidence is cited as proof that opioids are risky. 

“Limited evidence indicated no differences between long- and short-acting opioids in effectiveness, but long-acting opioids were associated with increased risk of overdose,” the report concludes.

“For patients with chronic pain, opioids are associated with small beneficial effects versus placebo but are associated with increased risk of short-term harms and do not appear to be superior to nonopioid therapy. Evidence on intermediate-term and long-term benefits remains very limited and additional evidence confirms an association between opioids and increased risk of serious harms that appears to be dose-dependent.”

Lawhern says the AHRQ is cherry picking the evidence. 

“The draft top level summary reveals a deliberate and scientifically unsupported bias against opioid analgesic therapy that continues and expands on the cherry picked ‘research’ quoted in the 2016 CDC guidelines on prescription of opioids,” he said.

Lawhern is particularly concerned about references in the draft to the Krebs report, a controversial study that found opioids no more effective than acetaminophen in treating back or knee pain. Critics say the Krebs study was small, poorly designed and failed to prove anything.

“The profoundly flawed and biased Krebs report is among the references quoted in the draft report. This inclusion by itself would be grounds for deep alarm,” Lawhern said.