Opioid Critics and Law Firms Profiting From Litigation

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Dr. Andrew Kolodny has long been known as one of the most strident critics of opioid prescribing. The founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) has claimed that drug makers and a web of industry-funded groups are to blame for the nation’s addiction and overdose crisis.

Kolodny has accused the so-called “opioid lobby” of undermining the CDC opioid guideline, claimed pain patients are being “effectively manipulated” by drug makers, and called the American Cancer Society a “shady organization” because it accepts outside funding. 

Kolodny even spoke about an “opioid mafia” as he testified as an expert witness in Oklahoma’s opioid lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson.

“We’ve seen Johnson & Johnson promote opioids in this unbranded campaign, funding front groups, patient groups meant to look like grassroots organizations that promoted opioids, funding professional groups that were promoting opioids,” Kolodny testified.  

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“We know that Johnson & Johnson participated in the Pain Care Forum, a group that I have referred to as the opioid mafia, working to protect their stake in the opium supply into the United States.”

Kolodny’s hyperbole is catnip to compliant reporters who can usually count on him to return their calls and provide a good quote.  A psychiatrist and former chief medical officer for the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House, Kolodny is the go-to source for many news organizations covering the opioid crisis. He now co-directs an opioid research program at Brandeis University that is funded by a federal grant.

Kolodny’s has long maintained that he is free of any conflicts of interest and that PROP has never accepted funding from the pharmaceutical industry.

“I don’t believe physicians should be helping drug companies market their products,” he testified in Oklahoma. “It’s very easy to fool yourself when it’s profitable to fool yourself.”

It’s very easy to fool yourself when it’s profitable to fool yourself.
— Dr. Andrew Kolodny

Kolodny has been questioned for several days by lawyers for Johnson & Johnson, who have opened a window into a lucrative sideline he’s developed working as a paid consultant and expert witness. Kolodny stands to make upwards of half a million dollars working for the law firm of Nix Patterson & Roach, one of three outside law firms hired by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to handle the case against Johnson & Johnson.

Kolodny testified that he’s being paid $725 an hour by Nix Patterson and could collect up to $500,000 for his services – possibly even more, depending on the length of the Oklahoma trial.

Under questioning, Kolodny also acknowledged that he was paid $725 an hour as a consultant for at least one other law firm involved in opioid litigation.

“I don’t think it should be a secret that I’m being compensated,” Koldony said, adding that he worked for Nix Patterson about ten hours a week before the trial started and 40 hours a week since it began four weeks ago. At his hourly rate, Kolodny’s weekly pay would be $29,000.

Nix Patterson can easily afford to pay Kolodny. According to the terms of their contingency agreement with Oklahoma, the three law firms stand to collect up to 25% of any damages and penalties. With $10 billion being sought from Johnson & Johnson, Nix Patterson’s share could theoretically add up to over $1.4 billion. 

Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals have already settled out-of-court with Oklahoma for far less — $270 million and $85 million respectively.  Nix Patterson’s share of the Purdue settlement alone was $31.6 million.

Compensation Not Disclosed

Koldony’s work as an expert witness in opioid litigation is not disclosed on Brandeis University’s website, PROP’s website or on the website of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, a non-profit that is the “fiscal sponsor” of PROP.  

A non-profit fiscal sponsorship is an IRS loophole that allows the Rummler Hope Network to collect tax deductible donations on PROP’s behalf. The identity of PROP’s donors and the size of their donations have never been disclosed.

Kolodny’s work in opioid litigation was not disclosed in a 2017 research study he co-authored that was published in JAMA Internal Medicine (ironically a study about conflict-of-interest), nor is it disclosed in an op/ed in JAMA that he co-authored that same year with former CDC director Thomas Frieden, MD.

Kolodny serves on the medical advisory committee of the Rummler Hope Network, along with PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD. Coincidentally, Ballantyne worked as a paid consultant for Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll – another law firm involved in opioid litigation in New Jersey, Indiana, Vermont, California and Illinois.

Kolodny testified in the Oklahoma trial that he also did some consulting for Cohen Milstein, which The New York Times profiled in 2014 as a politically influential law firm that was aggressively laying the groundwork for opioid lawsuits. We were unable to verify whether Kolodny was paid by Cohen Milstein or anything else about his work in opioid litigation.

“I’m not interested in answering any questions or talking to you,” Kolodny told this reporter.

PharmedOUT’s Paid Expert Witness

Another vocal critic of opioid prescribing is Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, Director of PharmedOUT, a program at Georgetown University Medical Center that seeks to expose deceptive marketing practices in the healthcare industry.

In a recent column in STAT News, Fugh-Berman and two of her grad students echoed many of Kolodony’s complaints about opioid manufacturers — claiming that “industry-funded attacks” on the CDC guideline by physician and patient advocacy groups were eroding public health.   

“The eerily similar attacks on the guideline… raise the question of whether this is a coordinated attempt by opioid manufacturers to use third parties to undermine, discredit, and smear the guideline,” they wrote. “There’s certainly a credible motive for opioid manufacturers to do this: The CDC guideline is an effective, evidence-based tool that has helped decrease inappropriate and dangerous prescribing of opioids for chronic pain patients.”



Unlike Kolodny, Fugh-Berman does disclose on PharmedOUT’s website that she is “a paid expert witness.” It is not clear, however, which law firm Fugh-Berman works for or what cases she is working on.

After initially agreeing to a telephone interview with PNN, Fugh-Berman abruptly cancelled. She did answer a few questions by email.

“I am a paid expert witness at the request of plaintiffs in litigation regarding pharmaceutical and medical device marketing practices, including litigation brought by several states and cities against opioid manufacturers.  My expert witness work has been disclosed to Georgetown, in my publications, and on our website,” Fugh-Berman wrote.

Like PROP, PharmedOUT does not disclose it donors, which Fugh-Berman calls “a common practice.”

“(We) are funded primarily by individual donations, mostly small donations but we have several major donors. We do not provide the names of our individual donors,” she said.

Fugh-Berman did disclose that Kaiser Permanente sponsored PharmedOUT’s recent opioid conference, which featured a speech by Kolodny entitled “How the Opioid Lobby Protected the Status Quo” and a talk by a Kaiser doctor on “How Kaiser Permanente Promotes Rational Prescribing.”  

Lobbying and Campaign Donations

Law firms involved in opioid litigation have played a significant role in some political campaigns and in shaping news coverage of the opioid crisis. The national firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy — which claims to have “effectively invented large-scale, multi-defendant opioid litigation” — represents dozens of states, counties and cities that are suing drug companies. According to reports, Simmons Hanly’s contingency fee will be as high as one-third of the proceeds from opioid settlements.

In the 2018 congressional election, Simmons Hanly spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying and donated over $1 million to candidates, according to Open Secrets.org. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) received five times more than any other candidate — nearly $410,000 — from donors affiliated with Simmons Hanly.

In February of that year, McCaskill released a scathing report that was sharply critical of physician and patient advocacy groups for accepting money from opioid manufacturers. At least two organizations cited in the McCaskill report — the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society — are named as defendants in opioid lawsuits filed by Simmons Hanly.

The report made headlines for McCaskill, who ultimately lost her bid for re-election, but continues to make news today — most recently in the STAT news column written by paid expert witness Dr. Fugh-Berman.

With the Oklahoma trial now heading into its fifth week, enormous amounts of money are at stake. A verdict against Johnson & Johnson could lead to a cascade of settlements in hundreds of other opioid lawsuits that could cost the pharmaceutical industry up to $50 billion. States, cities and counties would certainly benefit from a settlement of that size. So would the law firms that represent them – and their expert witnesses.

Forced Opioid Tapering: ‘The Next Great Experiment’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Last month the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication. The agency said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients who’ve been suddenly cutoff, including withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.  

A new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shows just how common the practice is. And how millions of pain patients are being subjected to a public health experiment with hardly anyone keeping track of what happens to them.

“The United States went through a great ‘experiment’ of expanding treatment of pain with opioids which has proved to be disastrous for public health. We have entered the next great ‘experiment’ of discontinuing opioid medications among the millions of Americans who are currently taking them,” said lead author Tami Mark, PhD, senior director of behavioral health at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.

“Little is known about how many individuals are tapering off opioid medications, whether observed tapering follows any… guidelines, and the extent to which rapid tapering is associated with negative consequences.”

Mark and her colleagues looked at medical and pharmacy claims for nearly 500 Medicaid patients in Vermont who had high doses of opioid medication discontinued from 2013 to 2017.

All of the patients were prescribed a daily dose of at least 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and over half had been on that high dose for over a year. 

Although most clinical guidelines recommend a “go slow” approach to opioid tapering – especially for patients on high doses – only 5 percent of the Vermont patients had a tapering period longer than 90 days. The vast majority (86%) were rapidly tapered in 21 days or less, including about half who were cut off from opioids without any tapering.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that patients on opioids be tapered only 10% a week, with even slower tapers of 10% a month for long-term users. Had those guidelines been applied in Vermont, most tapers would have taken up to a year to complete.

Half of Tapered Patients Hospitalized

What happened to the patients who were cut off? Nearly half were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure. For tapered patients, the risk of being hospitalized was reduced by 7% for each additional week of tapering.

Researchers don’t know how many of the discontinued patients committed suicide or how many were referred to addiction treatment. Notably, less than one percent received medication assistance treatment (MAT) such as Suboxone.

The study did not look at why patients were taken off opioids or who initiated the discontinuation. But researchers believe some of the rapid discontinuations “may be due to a breakdown in the clinical relationship between physicians and patients” – suggesting the patients were forcibly tapered or abandoned by their doctors.

In its warning to doctors, the FDA strongly recommends that patients not be forcibly tapered and that patients and doctors should jointly agree to a tapering plan.

“Health care professionals should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient. No standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients,” the FDA said.

Forced Tapering Widespread

How many patients have been forcibly tapered or discontinued is unclear, but it probably runs in the millions. A recent report from IQVIA found that there were 75 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled last year compared to 2014, with the biggest decline in high dose prescriptions. 

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 pain patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced since the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016. Many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief. And nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated.

“I have been forced to taper to 90 MME. I had been stable and functional for 10 years at 135 MME. Now I can no longer work, and can barely take care of my children. I am considering suicide because my pain is unbearable,” one patient told us.

“I have been forcibly tapered by more than half and my pain is not being relieved at this dose. I am now unable to work or care for my children,” another patient wrote. “I live in constant anxiety (which worsens my pain) that I will be abandoned, refused any pain management, or reduced to a dose so low that taking my own life is the only way to escape the pain.”

“My forced taper was a little over a year ago. Before that I lived a small but functional life on high dose opioids. I took the same dose, from the same doctor for over a decade. Then I was forced off of 75% of my dose,” said another patient. “Once we got down to my current dose the medication was no longer enough to control my pain. I now live a tiny, nonfunctional life. I spend all my time in bed watching TV. I never leave the house. Showers are my worst enemy. And I am lucky. I wasn’t abandoned by my doctor.”

A noted critic of opioid prescribing calls reports like these exaggerations. Andrew Kolodny, MD, the Executive Director and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told Stateline that the number of doctors who are inappropriately tapering patients is likely very small and should not be blamed on the CDC.

"We have a very real problem in this country. But the CDC guidelines didn't cause it," Kolodny said. "The problem is that millions of Americans have been put on round-the-clock opioids at very high doses and for reasons that doctors now realize were not appropriate.

"What the FDA needs to tell doctors is that because it is so excruciating to come off of opioids, they need to be very selective about who they put on them.”

In a series of Tweets two years ago, Kolodny said patients on high doses should be forcibly tapered “even if patient refuses” and challenged assertions that forced tapering was risky and widespread.

Now Kolodny says he sympathizes with patients but claims they are being manipulated.

“Their emotions are real. But they’re being effectively manipulated to controversialize the CDC guidelines,” he told Stateline.


Many of Kolodny’s colleagues disagree. Over 300 healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter last year that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Lessons from 'American Overdose' on the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The book “American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts” by Chris McGreal takes a hard look at the opioid crisis. The book focuses on the legal and political side of the crisis, along with a history of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, and a detailed description of pill mills and rogue pharmacies in Appalachia.

“It is a tragedy forged by the capture of medical policy by corporations and the failure of institutions in their duty to protect Americans,” is how McGreal describes the genesis and evolution of the crisis.

The book highlights the massive collusion and corruption in communities in West Virginia and Kentucky, leading to the Williamson Wellness Center and other pill mills that were protected by law enforcement, ignored by state and federal regulators, and encouraged or exploited by drug manufacturers and distributors.

McGreal also traces the history of Purdue and the Sackler family, and how their efforts to improve pain management led to the creation of the blockbuster drug OxyContin. He explains how Purdue’s marketing claims “proved to be demonstrably false, including an assertion that addiction is rare when opioids are taken under a doctor’s care.”

However, McGreal does not depict Purdue as a lone bad actor. Instead, federal and state dysfunction and disinterest contributed to the crisis. “The FDA wasn’t the only one to drop the ball. A clutch of federal agencies with long names have responsibility for combating drug addiction and overdose,” he wrote. And they all failed.

The failure was both systemic and systematic. As the crisis unfolded, local law enforcement had to contend with “indifference and what they regarded as the political cowardice of the system.” Perhaps more important than the cowardice and corruption was greed, not just corporate greed but also local greed for the money brought in by pill mills: “The businesses did good. You had pharmacies that were doing really good.”

The problem soon extended far beyond Appalachia. Among the earliest and biggest pill mills was American Pain, set up in 2007 near Fort Lauderdale, Florida by twin brothers Chris and Jeff George – neither of whom had medical training.

Opioid addiction also rose across the nation because of cultural factors, writes McGreal. In Utah, “the dominance of the conservative Church of Latter-day Saints appeared to be a cause of addiction, not a deterrent” because of the church’s “toxic perfectionism.”

Government agencies and officials were encouraged to ignore it all. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office wasn’t interested in pursuing pill mills and the “political leadership within Florida wasn’t much better.”

Rudy Giuliani, Eric Holder, and James Comey all helped Purdue, according to McGreal, by delaying investigations of the company as addiction and overdose rates rose rapidly in the 2000’s.

The CDC’s involvement is described as delayed and dysfunctional. "Until 1998 the United States used a classification system lumping heroin, morphine, and prescription opiate deaths together," McGreal points out. Even when CDC researcher Len Paulozzi documented rising trends in overdose deaths, no one paid serious attention until Thomas Frieden, MD, became director. Even then, serious flaws remain in how the CDC reports on overdose deaths.  

Anti-opioid activists Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), and PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD, sounded warnings about opioids, but offered little in the way of solutions outside of cutting off prescriptions. Many of their warnings proved to be unfounded, in particular with the opioid analgesic Zohydro. The drug was approved by the FDA amid dire warnings of a major spike in addiction and overdoses, but “there was no great surge of overdoses because of Zohydro.”

“FDA officials don’t like Kolodny. They characterize him as unreasonable and difficult. One described him as a ‘complex character’,” McGreal writes.

Similarly, the 2016 CDC opioid prescribing guideline is described as too late to be useful. McGreal looks closely at the debate about the CDC guideline and recommendations from the 2017 opioid commission set up by President Trump. But despite these much-touted steps, “little changed on the ground for states desperate for treatment facilities and help with the social costs of the tragedy.”

The book concludes on a pessimistic note, captured in a comment from Nathaniel Katz, MD, about opioid addiction and overdose: "I don’t really see any prospect for intelligent policy in this area in the United States.”

McGreal summarizes his ideas with an indictment of American culture.

"In large parts of the United States, opioids were popular because they were a fix. A fix for emotional pain. A fix for failing bodies. A fix for struggling to make it in a society that promises so much, and judges by what is achieved, but turns it back on so many of those who fail to live up to that promise," he writes.

If “American Overdose” offers lessons, it is that the opioid crisis is a result not only corporate greed but also American culture; in particular politicians, regulators and a broader medical industry with agendas contrary to the public good. The book is an origin tale of the opioid crisis that offers little hope for the future.

Roger Chriss.jpg

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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. 

Addiction to Rx Opioids Falling

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield highlights a little-known and rarely reported aspect of the opioid crisis: Addiction to opioid pain medication is declining, not increasing.

Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) said 241,900 of its members were diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) in 2017, a rate of 6.2 for every 1,000 BCBS members. The rate fell to 5.9 in 1,000 members in 2017, a decline of nearly 5 percent. The insurer said it was the first drop in the eight years BCBS has tracked diagnoses of OUD.

"We are encouraged by these findings, but we remain vigilant," said Trent Haywood, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BCBS said in a statement.

"More work is needed to better evaluate the effectiveness of treatment options and ensure access to care for those suffering from opioid use disorder."

BCBS attributes much of the decline to a 29% drop in opioid prescriptions for its members since 2013.  A longtime critic of opioid prescribing hailed the findings as a sign of change.


"It means that there's light at the end of the tunnel," psychiatrist Andrew Kolodny, MD, the founder and executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) told BuzzFeed.

"Unfortunately though, the genie is out of the bottle," said Kolodny, a former medical director of the addiction treatment chain Phoenix House. "Millions of Americans are now struggling with opioid addiction. Unless we do a better job of increasing access to effective treatment, overdose deaths will remain at record high levels and we'll have to wait for this generation to die off before the crisis comes to an end."

Admissions for Addiction Treatment

The BCBS numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since they include all types of opioid addiction, including those linked to heroin, illicit fentanyl and prescription opioids. A more accurate way to track addiction to opioid medication would be admissions to publicly-funded treatment facilities for “non-heroin opiates/synthetic abuse” – a category that excludes heroin, but includes hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl and other painkillers.

A database maintained by the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that treatment admissions for prescription opioids peaked in 2011 at 193,552 admissions and fell to 121,363 by 2015 – a significant decline of over 37 percent. It seems likely that admissions for painkiller abuse have fallen even further since 2015, as opioid prescriptions have continued to plummet, and more pain patients are abandoned or denied treatment.

The SAMHSA data also reveals another trend: While the number of people seeking treatment for painkiller, alcohol and marijuana abuse has declined, admissions to treatment facilities for heroin addiction have soared. In 2010, there were 270,564 admissions in which heroin was identified as the primary substance of abuse. By 2015, that number had grown to 401,743 admissions – an increase of nearly a third.



Admissions for heroin addiction now surpass those for other substances, yet much of the nation’s spending and law enforcement resources remain targeted on opioid prescriptions. Many public health officials also cling to the myth the heroin epidemic was triggered by opioid overprescribing, even though heroin admissions outnumber painkiller admissions by a 3 to 1 margin.

“Epidemiological data show that as widely prescribed opioids became less accessible due to supply side interventions, heroin use skyrocketed,“ psychiatrist Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recently told OpioidWatch.  Volkow was an early supporter of the CDC opioid guideline, one of the first supply side interventions, a strategy that she now characterizes as "naive."

“Expecting that declines in rates of prescribed opioids could, by themselves, stem the tide of the opioid crisis is naïve and an oversimplification of the complex nature of the crisis," Volkow said. "Legitimate questions have been raised about whether some pain patients might now be undertreated, and whether tightened prescribing practices over the last few years has contributed to the surge in overdose deaths from heroin and especially fentanyl.”

A recent study by SAMHSA found that deaths linked to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed overdoses involving pain medication in 2016.  The study also found that drugs used to treat depression and anxiety are involved in more overdoses than any other class of medication.

GOP Report Blames Medicaid for Opioid Crisis

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new congressional report claims there is “overwhelming evidence” that Medicaid has  contributed to the nation’s opioid crisis by making it easy for beneficiaries to obtain and abuse opioid prescriptions.

The lengthy report, called “Drugs for Dollars: How Medicaid Helps Fuel the Opioid Epidemic,” was prepared by the Republican controlled Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Democrats on the committee complained the report was concocted to discredit and demonize Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The report cites 1,072 people since 2010 that have been convicted or accused of using Medicaid to improperly obtain prescription opioids.  That is only a tiny fraction of the nearly 70 million people enrolled in Medicaid, but the report nevertheless draws some sweeping conclusions.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that Medicaid has inadvertently contributed to the national tragedy that is the opioid epidemic, and has taken a toll that is playing out in courtrooms across the nation,” the committee staff reported.


“Other well-intended government programs, such as Medicare, may provide similar incentives for rational actors to engage in bad behavior with highly addictive opioids. These issues hold major ramifications for public policy, along with the nation’s health. They deserve serious consideration and a sober national debate, one we hope this staff report will help to initiate. The victims of this terrible epidemic deserve no less.”

The report cites dozens of examples of doctors and beneficiaries abusing the system, such as a $1 billion scheme to defraud Medicaid and Medicare that involved numerous health care providers.

Committee staff also claimed that drug overdose deaths were rising nearly twice as fast in Medicaid expansion states as in non-expansion states. About 12 million more Americans receive Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.

“While there is clearly no single cause to the epidemic, evidence has emerged that Medicaid is playing a perverse and unintended role in helping to fuel and fund the opioid epidemic,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) wrote in a letter to Eric Hargan, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The data uncovered in this examination point to a larger systematic problem – because opioids are easily obtained and inexpensive through Medicaid, the structure of the program itself creates a series of incentives for beneficiaries to use opioids and sell them for potentially enormous profits.”

‘Total Hogwash’

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Claire McKaskill of Missouri, called the report misleading.

"This idea that Medicaid expansion is fueling the rise in opioid deaths is total hogwash," McCaskill said in a statement. "It is not supported by the facts. And I am concerned that this committee is using taxpayer dollars to push out this misinformation to advance a political agenda."

“Separate scientific studies conducted by other authors show that (the) opioid epidemic predates Medicaid expansion and that recent increases in overdoses stem from fentanyl and heroin, not prescriptions obtained through Medicaid.  Unlike the report released by the majority staff today, these studies were both scientific and comprehensive.”

The report’s conclusions were also questioned by a longtime critic of opioid prescribing.

“I believe the access to prescribers that Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance offers does increase the likelihood that someone might develop a disease often caused by prescriptions,” said Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder and Executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP).

“But I do not believe that Medicaid should be singled out in this regard. Opioid overdoses have been increasing in people with all types of insurance and in people from all economic groups, from rich to poor.”

A report released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that states with above average overdose death rates includes 18 states that expanded their Medicaid coverage and 8 states that did not.  Overall, Medicaid covers nearly 40% of the two million Americans estimated to have opioid addiction.

Why Human Suffering Should Bother You

By Margaret Aranda, MD, Columnist

Patients go to doctors when they have pain and doctors can give them opioid medication to relieve that pain. That should not bother you, because it is a decision made between the physician and the patient.

No doctor has the right to strip a patient of dignity by minimizing or downplaying their pain. We can't become indifferent to the denial of pain, because pain is real. Pain hurts.

A recent column in The Conversation by Dr. Andrew Kolodny bothers me because of two sentences:

"They (opioids) are also helpful when used for a couple of days after major surgery or a serious accident. Unfortunately, the bulk of the opioid prescriptions in the U.S. are for common conditions, like back pain," wrote Kolodny, who is a psychiatrist, not a pain management doctor.

Let’s look at the different ways that Dr. Kolodny is minimizing pain:

Postoperative Pain: A large study recently found that long-term opioid use after surgery is rare. Yet some patients are now being denied opioids after major surgery because of fears they might become addicted. Patients should ask questions about how their postop pain will be treated before surgery and get another surgeon if no opioids are to be offered. Patients do not have to allow a surgeon to minimize their pain.

Trauma:  Serious accidents cause severe trauma. Severe trauma can take months, years or decades to alleviate, leaving patients with chronic pain through no fault of their own. Many are burned, disfigured, scarred, disabled, have a pain syndrome, use a wheelchair, and go on disability or Medicare. 

We cannot allow ourselves to minimize any degree of pain that leads to suffering, less zest for living, and lower quality of life.


Back Pain: Millions of people have low back pain and the added mental health stress that often comes with it, which costs the U.S. economy $100-200 billion in lost workdays and productivity annually. Don't minimize their pain, either!

Treating Pain:  No doctor who witnesses a patient suffering in an emergency room, operating room or intensive care unit should minimize their pain. I've worked in all three as a board certified anesthesiologist and intensive care unit doctor, and am a witness to how an Ivy League university, private clinic, free clinic, county hospital, women's hospital, and Veterans Administration hospitals treat severe pain that may never, ever get better. I'm also a witness as a rebel patient who was offered acetaminophen and ibuprofen for my postop pain.

Physician judgment: Many patients with chronic pain are disabled and legally protected from discrimination. They have failed other therapies and deserve opioid medication for quality of life. They are not bad people, and they have not done anything wrong. Nevertheless, they are often treated like "today's lepers," as Dr. Thomas Kline says. So don't minimize their pain.

Patient Perspective: While on opioids, many chronic pain patients can get out of bed, work a job and keep their families together. They aren't addicts, do not sell their pills, steal money from others to get more, are not estranged from their families for a “drug problem,” and have never had naloxone used on them.

If they are lucky enough to still get an opioid prescription, many are being treated like criminals with rigors that do not stand on evidence-based medicine. They are forced to sign pain contracts, undergo drug tests, and then deal with pharmacy restrictions. Even with pills in hand, it is often not enough. There is an epidemic of undertreated chronic pain, so don't minimize the patient.

Patient Outcome: Unilateral withdrawal or sudden tapering of opioid therapy leads to patient suffering, sleep loss and decreased quality of life. A patient can become bedridden, depressed, and some have committed suicide! It all starts with non-validation of pain.

The Doctor's Oath

No doctor has a right to label, stigmatize, minimize or abandon a patient, much less a patient in pain. To stay clear of this, every medical student is taught to preserve patient dignity and autonomy. Nevertheless, patients are being withdrawn from opioid therapy all over America today, and it is being done by doctors who minimize pain, break the physician-patient bond, and dishonor the Hippocratic Oath.

We've known for over 150 years that doctors commit suicide twice as often as other professions. I think the current situation truly bothers most compassionate doctors, who will be struggling even more in the years to come with physician burnout syndrome. We could see even more suicides by medical students and physicians. 

Doctors are supposed to save lives, and it is just as important to save quality of life. Without quality of life, it is entirely human to have moments when death seems to be the only option out of a life of suffering. Doctors need to keep patients away from having suicidal thoughts, especially if their illness is something that modern medicine can take care of and is severely undertreated, like pain.

It is important to the public in general, and to patients who are disabled in particular, that everyone understands that there are doctors who work night and day for patients who are in pain. We are passionate about it because doctors are healers and no one is ever going to change the meaning of being a real doctor.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw the revised version of the Hippocratic Oath by the World Medical Association. Two important sentences depict how doctors should be responding to pain and their patients:

“I WILL RESPECT the autonomy and dignity of my patient."

"I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat."

When we minimize pain, we minimize the patient. When we minimize the patient, the patient dies.

So go ahead and let human suffering bother you. It proves that you still have empathy and compassion. 


Dr. Margaret Aranda is a Stanford and Keck USC alumni in anesthesiology and critical care. She has dysautonomia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after a car accident left her with traumatic brain injuries that changed her path in life to patient advocacy.

Margaret is a board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association. She has authored six books, the most recent is The Rebel Patient: Fight for Your Diagnosis. You can follow Margaret’s expert social media advice on Twitter, Google +, Blogspot, Wordpress. and LinkedIn.

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.

Patient Advocates Call on Brandeis to Fire Kolodny

By Pat Anson, Editor

A coalition of physicians, patient advocates and pain sufferers has written an open letter to Brandeis University asking for the dismissal of Andrew Kolodny, MD, a longtime critic of opioid prescribing who is co-director of opioid policy research at the university’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

Kolodny is the founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group that has lobbied politicians and regulators for years to enact stronger measures to limit prescribing of opioid pain medication.

“Dr. Kolodny has been prominent in a national campaign to deny chronic pain patients even minimal management of their pain.  His actions are directed toward forcing draconian restrictions or outright withdrawal of this class of medications from medical practice,” reads the letter to Brandeis President Ronald Liebowitz and other top administrators at the university.

“He calls for forced tapering of patients formerly prescribed opioids. Policy positions for which he advocates are leading to the deaths of hundreds of chronic pain patients by suicide or pain-related heart failure and medical collapse.”

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The letter was drafted by Richard Lawhern, PhD, and signed by over 60 healthcare professionals and patient advocates, including pain management specialists Forest Tennant, MD, and Aimee Chagnon, MD. Lawhern is the corresponding secretary of the “Opioid Policy Correspondents List,” an ad hoc volunteer group that advocates for better pain care. The group receives no funding from outside sources.

To read the letter in its entirety, click here.

Kolodny is a controversial figure in the pain community and is often quoted in the news media as an expert on issues involving pain management, even though his professional background is in psychiatry and addiction treatment.  He often refers to opioid medication as “heroin pills” and has suggested that patients shouldn’t trust doctors who prescribe opioids.

“I wish I could tell you that you should trust your doctor and talk to your doctor about this, but that may not be the case,” Kolodny said on C-SPAN in 2015. “We have doctors even prescribing to teenagers and parents not recognizing that the doctor has just essentially prescribed the teenager the equivalent of a heroin pill.”

“Although Dr. Kolodny has a work history in public health and addiction psychiatry, he is neither qualified nor Board Certified in pain management -- a closely related field that has been profoundly and negatively impacted by his assertions concerning public policy. From his published articles and interviews, it is clear to many readers that he knows or cares little about chronic pain patients and their treatment,” Lawhern’s letter states.

In a series of Tweets earlier this year, Kolodny said patients on “dangerously high doses” of opioids should be tapered to lower doses even if they refuse. He then asked for specific examples of doctors “forcing tapers in a risky fashion.”

Dozens of people responded with examples of patients becoming seriously ill or committing suicide after forced tapering, which Kolodny ignored.   

The letter to Brandeis calls Kolodny "one of the most polarizing and hated figures in medicine" among people in pain.

“In our view and those of many people whom he has harmed, Dr. Kolodny makes no positive contribution to the work or reputation of Brandeis or its research centers.  To the contrary, we believe it is ethically and morally imperative that he be dismissed immediately from the University, before his presence further damages both your reputation and your financial endowments,” the letter states.

The university did not respond to a request for comment on the letter. Neither did Kolodny.


Brandeis is a well-regarded liberal arts and private research university located near Boston. The Heller School for Social Policy and Management is often ranked as one of the top ten schools in social policy.  Kolodny joined Heller last year as a senior scientist after resigning as chief medical officer at Phoenix House, which runs a chain of addiction treatment centers.

Kolodny and PROP played central roles in developing the 2016 CDC opioid guidelines, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Although voluntary and only intended for primary care doctors, the guidelines have been widely adopted as mandatory by insurers, federal agencies and throughout the U.S. healthcare system.

In an online survey of over 3,100 pain patients and healthcare providers on the first anniversary of the guidelines’ release, most said the guidelines were harmful to patients, had not improved the quality of pain care, and failed to reduce opioid abuse and overdoses. Critics also cite anecdotal evidence that the guidelines have contributed to an increase in patient suicides.

PROP Founder Calls for Forced Opioid Tapering

By Pat Anson, Editor

Have you or a loved one been harmed by being tapered off high doses of opioid pain medication?

The founder of an anti-opioid activist group wants to know – or at least he posed the question during a debate about opioid tapering with colleagues on Twitter this week.

“Outside of palliative care, dangerously high doses should be reduced even if patient refuses.  Where exactly is this done in a risky way?” wrote Andrew Kolodny, MD, Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). 

“I’m asking you to point to a specific clinic or health system that is forcing tapers in a risky fashion. Where is this happening?”

It’s not an idle question. About 10 million Americans take opioid medication daily for chronic pain, and many are being weaned or tapered to lower doses -- some willingly, some not -- because of fears that high doses can lead to addiction and overdose.

Kolodny’s Twitter posts were triggered by recent research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that evaluated 67 studies on the safety and effectiveness of opioid tapering. Most of those studies were considered very poor quality.

“Although confidence is limited by the very low quality of evidence overall, findings from this systematic review suggest that pain, function, and quality of life may improve during and after opioid dose reduction,” wrote co-author Erin Krebs, MD, of the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System. 

Krebs was an original member of the “Core Expert Group” – an advisory panel that secretly helped draft the CDC opioid prescribing guidelines with a good deal of input from PROP. She also appeared in a lecture series on opioid prescribing that was funded by the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which coincidentally is the fiscal sponsor of PROP. 

Curiously, while Krebs and her colleagues were willing to accept poor quality evidence about the benefits of tapering, they were not as eager to accept poor evidence of the risks associated with tapering. 

“This review found insufficient evidence on adverse events related to opioid tapering, such as accidental overdose if patients resume use of high-dose opioids or switch to illicit opioid sources or onset of suicidality or other mental health symptoms,” wrote Krebs.

But the risk of suicide is not be taken lightly, as we learned in the case of Bryan Spece, a 54-year old chronic pain sufferer who shot himself to death a few weeks after his high oxycodone dose was abruptly reduced by 70 percent.  Hundreds of other pain sufferers at the Montana clinic where Spece was a patient have also seen their doses cut or stopped entirely.

Spece’s suicide was not an isolated incident, as we are often reminded by PNN readers.

“A 38 year old young lady here took a gun and put a bullet in her head after being abruptly cut off of her pain medication,” Helen wrote to us. “Her whole life ahead of her. This is happening every day, it just isn't being reported.”

“I too recently lost a friend who took his own life due to the fact that he was in constant pain and the clinic he was going to cut him off completely,” said Tony.

“I have been made to detox on my own as doctors who were not comfortable giving out these meds would take me off, not wean me,” wrote Brian. “Was a nightmare. Thought I was gonna die. No, I wanted to die.”

“In the end when you realize that you’re not going to get help and that you have nothing left, suicide is all you have,” wrote Justin, who is disabled by pain and no longer able to work or pay his bills after being taken off opioids. “I don't want to hurt my family. I don't want to die. However it is the only way out now. I just hope my family and the good Lord can forgive me.”

Patient advocates like Terri Lewis, PhD, say it is reckless to abruptly taper anyone off high doses of opioids or to aim for artificial goals such as a particular dose. She says every patient is different.

“There is plenty of evidence that persons treated with opiates have variable responses - some achieve no benefit at all.  Some require very little, others require larger doses to achieve the same benefit,” Lewis wrote in an email to PNN.

“It is an over-generalization to claim that opiates are lousy drugs for chronic pain. Chronic pain is generated from more than 200 medical conditions, each of which generate differing patterns of illness and pain generation. For some, it may be reflective of its own unique disease process. We have to retain the ability to treat the person, not the label, not to the dose.”

Patient ‘Buy-in’ Important for Successful Tapering

And what about Kolodny’s contention that high opioid doses should be reduced even if a patient refuses? Not a good idea, according to a top CDC official, who says patient “buy-in” and collaboration is important if tapering is to be successful.

“Neither (Kreb’s) review nor CDC's guideline provides support for involuntary or precipitous tapering. Such practice could be associated with withdrawal symptoms, damage to the clinician–patient relationship, and patients obtaining opioids from other sources,” wrote Deborah Dowell, MD, a CDC Senior Medical Advisor, in an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  “Clinicians have a responsibility to carefully manage opioid therapy and not abandon patients in chronic pain. Obtaining patient buy-in before tapering is a critical and not insurmountable task.”

The CDC guideline also stresses that tapering should be done slowly and with patient input.

“For patients who agree to taper opioids to lower dosages, clinicians should collaborate with the patient on a tapering plan,” the guideline states. “Experts noted that patients tapering opioids after taking them for years might require very slow opioid tapers as well as pauses in the taper to allow gradual accommodation to lower opioid dosages.”

The CDC recommends a "go slow" approach and individualized treatment when patients are tapered.  A "reasonable starting point" would be 10% of the original dose per week, according to the CDC, and patients who have been on opioids for a long time should have even slower tapers of 10% a month.

The Department of Veterans Affairs takes a more aggressive approach to tapering, recommending tapers of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although in some high dose cases the VA says an initial rapid taper of 20% to 50% a day is needed. If a veteran resists tapering, VA doctors are advised to request mental health support and consider the possibility that the patient has an opioid use disorder.

Have you been tapered at a level faster than what the CDC and VA recommend? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

If you think you were tapered in a risky way, you can let Dr. Kolodny know at his Twitter address: @andrewkolodny.

PROP Urges Members to Oppose FDA Opioid Strategy

By Pat Anson, Editor

An anti-opioid activist group has sent an “Urgent Action Request” to it members, asking them to oppose plans by the Food and Drug Administration to give new guidance to health care providers about prescribing opioid pain medication.

The initial draft of the guideline for Prescriber Education for Extended-Release and Long-Acting Opioids Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies – more simply known as REMS -- warns prescribers at length about the risk of overdose, addiction and the “epidemic of prescription opioid drug abuse.” But Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) doesn’t think the draft goes far enough.

“The current draft is seriously flawed,” wrote PROP founder and Executive Director Andrew Kolodny, MD, in an email to supporters urging them to leave a comment in the Federal Register before the public comment period on the REMS guideline ends on Monday, July 10.

“Please post a comment about the draft on the FDA federal docket. FDA is required to review the comments and tally them. If FDA receives enough critical comments, there is a good chance they'll improve the document.” 

Kolodny’s email provides a “sample comment” for PROP members to use, urging the FDA to adopt an upper dose limit on opioids, mention the “lack of evidence supporting long-term opioid use” and provide a list of pain conditions for which opioids are “inappropriate” – such as fibromyalgia and chronic headache.

Until now, the REMS draft guideline – an update to a similar guideline released in 2012 – has drawn little public attention. Less than 300 comments have been made in the Federal Register, most of them focused on whether acupuncture and chiropractic care should be included as alternative treatments to opioids. 

The 10-page guideline warns doctors repeatedly about using caution when prescribing opioids, but it stops short of setting an artificial ceiling on doses, such as those recommended last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an even tougher guideline recently adopted by the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense (VA/DOD).

“We believe the REMS curriculum should be based on the CDC guideline and the VA/DOD guideline,” wrote Kolodny and other PROP board members in a letter to FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD. “The CDC and VA/DOD guideline warn against prescribing high doses of opioids and specifically recommend against doses greater than 90mg morphine equivalents. The Blueprint omits this critical topic.”

“I don't agree that the new blueprint is inconsistent with recommendations from other government agencies. For one thing, there is a specific statement in the blueprint that HCPs (health care providers) should know about the CDC guideline and other guidelines regarding safe opioid prescribing,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, an organization of pain management providers.

“Let me also point out that PROP's call for inclusion of ‘an upper dose limit consistent with recommendations from other federal agencies’ perpetuates the myth that the CDC guideline contains such an upper dose limit. CDC was very clear when it issued the guideline that it should be considered to contain recommendations, not limits.”

The REMS guideline not only does not endorse a specific limit on opioids, it recommends that “a comprehensive treatment plan should be developed and customized to the needs of the individual patient.”  The focus on individualized patient care is something else that PROP takes issue with.

“Since the purpose of the Blueprint is to teach more cautious prescribing the focus should be first and foremost on when to use opioids for acute and chronic pain, and secondly, on how to use opioids as safely as possible. The Blueprint does not need to teach how to make a pain diagnosis, or what alternatives there are to opioids, both of which should be considered beyond the scope of REMS,” wrote Kolodny his his letter. “Until opioids are prescribed more cautiously it will not be possible to bring the opioid addiction epidemic under control.”

But opioids are being prescribed more cautiously and have been since 2010, as we learned from a new CDC study. Yet the nation’s opioid crisis continues to worsen, fueled by heroin, illicit fentanyl, counterfeit painkillers, and failed strategies to control the crisis by denying many pain patients their only form of treatment.   

To see the FDA’s draft REMS guideline, click here. To leave your own comment on the Federal Register, click here.

Better Analysis Needed on Non-Medical Use of Opioids

By Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, Guest Columnist

A few months ago, the medical journal World Psychiatry published an article that focused on the global non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly psychoactive substances such as opioids.

Unfortunately, the two authors -- Dr. Silvia Martins and Dr. Lilian Ghandour -- ignored the distinction between prescription and prescribed opioids, adding unnecessary confusion to the already complex debate about access to pain treatment. Further, Dr. Martins said in the Washington Post that the non-medical use of psychoactive substances could turn into a pandemic if we are not careful.

Both authors are affiliated with Columbia University’s Mailman Institute of Public Health, which claims to work in the interest of underserved people in developing countries. Access to effective pain treatment in developing countries is already now more difficult than in the U.S.

Elsewhere, I have demonstrated that access to prescribed opioids for adequate pain treatment is a problem for 5.5 billion people living in countries where opioid analgesics are not available or inaccessible for patients in need.

In most countries, the per capita consumption of legitimately prescribed opioid analgesics (as officially reported to the International Narcotics Control Board) remains much lower than in the U.S. and Canada, in extreme cases even up to 50,000 times lower.

Distinction Between “Prescribed” and “Prescription” is Key

There is a vast difference between prescription and prescribed opioids. Prescription opioids are intended to be prescribed as medicines. Prescribed medicines are actually prescribed by a physician and dispensed by a pharmacy.

About 75% of fatal overdoses from prescription opioids in the U.S. occur in people who have not been prescribed opioids during the three months preceding their deaths. Thus, the majority must have obtained these prescription opioids on the black or gray market.

Without referencing the data, Drs. Martins and Ghandour claim that prescription opioids are causing serious problems in other parts of the world. However, data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction and the European Drug Report indicate that diversion of prescription opioids is not a serious problem in Europe. In other regions of the world, per capita prescription of opioids is very low.

Drs. Martins and Ghandour claim a high prevalence of non-medical use of prescription opioids in Saudi Arabia. However, those medicines are hardly ever prescribed in that country and medical consumption rates are only about 2.5 % of the U.S. volume. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s non-medical use of prescription opioids can hardly originate from prescribed opioids.

Unfortunately, World Psychiatry refused to publish a letter I wrote with other experts which addressed the misunderstandings stemming from Drs. Martins and Ghandour’s article.

PROP and the Anti-Opioid Lobby

The anti-opioid lobby in the U.S. does not shy away from using arguments not based on facts, just like Drs. Martins and Ghandour in their article. For example, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) perpetuates the mistaken conflation of prescription and prescribed opioids, advocating in the U.S. against the legitimate medical prescribing of opioid analgesics. PROP tries to justify its position using false statistics, as I demonstrated in a recent publication.

Moreover, PROP leadership participated in drafting the 2016 CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. PROP Executive Director Dr. Andrew Kolodny disclosed his involvement, but PROP President Dr. Jane Ballantyne and PROP Vice President Dr. Gary Franklin did not list the group as a relevant conflict of interest on their disclosure forms.

The Steve Rummler Hope Foundation is the “fiscal sponsor” of PROP. Its vision is “a world where individuals with chronic pain receive integrated care focused on wellness rather than drugs.” For patients with moderate or severe pain, this can hardly be an effective and humane treatment. PROP’s close ties with the Steve Rummler Foundation are revealed by Dr. Kolodny’s and Dr. Ballantyne’s membership on its medical advisory committee.

Policies Should Balance All Public Health Interests

Indeed, it is correct to attend to the non-medical use of psychoactive substances. However, the situation outside the U.S. is really different. In many countries, patients have no access to adequate pain management. Measures to address non-medical use of opioids should not hamper access to effective pain management.

Policymakers in countries with a low per capita medical opioid consumption and low prescription rates should first analyse how prescription opioids that have not been prescribed enter circulation. The relationship between the non-medical use of prescription opioids and illicitly produced substances such as heroin should also be taken into consideration. Then, appropriate interventions to halt the diversion should be developed.

In parallel, policymakers should develop policies aimed at ensuring adequate provision of pain treatment as recommended by the World Health Organization. Optimal public health outcomes can only be attained when policies to minimize non-medical use are balanced with policies to maximize access to adequate pain management. Crafting such policies entails correctly distinguishing between prescribed and prescription opioids.

Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, is an independent consultant for medicines and controlled substances at Willem Scholten Consultancy in the Netherlands. This has included work for DrugScience, Grünenthal, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Mundipharma, Pinney Associates and the World Health Organization. Dr. Scholten is also a board member of International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies.

He wishes to acknowledge Dr. Katherine Pettus for her contribution to this article.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

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.