Will Christie or Bondi Be Next Attorney General?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

PNN readers cheered last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired by President Donald Trump. Sessions angered many in the pain community when he called for further cuts in opioid production and said pain patients should “tough it out” by taking aspirin.  

“The good news is Jeff Sessions (was) forced to resign,” wrote Carole Attisano. “Finally getting a small bit of Karma you so well deserved,”

“Now let’s hope that we get somebody with some type of human conscience for those who suffer with pain,” wrote another PNN reader.

As the saying goes… be careful what you wish for.

According to CBS News, two of the early front runners to be nominated as the next Attorney General are former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Like Sessions, both have been longtime critics of opioid prescribing and served last year on President Trump’s opioid commission.

CHRIS CHRISTIE

CHRIS CHRISTIE

Christie certainly has experience in law enforcement. He was a federal prosecutor and U.S. Attorney in New Jersey from 2002 to 2008.

As governor, Christie signed legislation that made New Jersey one of the first states to limit the supply of opioids for short-term, acute pain. He also bitterly opposed efforts to expand the use of medical marijuana, calling cannabis activists “crazy liberals” willing to “poison our kids” for marijuana tax revenue.   

The final report from the president’s opioid commission, which Christie chaired, took a law-and-order approach to the opioid crisis, calling for “involuntary changes” in opioid prescribing.

“This crisis can be fought with effective medical education, voluntary or involuntary changes in prescribing practices, and a strong regulatory and enforcement environment,” the commission said.

In its five public hearings, the commission heard testimony from addiction treatment activists and several people who lost loved ones to opioid overdoses. But the panel never asked for or received testimony from pain sufferers, patient advocates or pain management physicians.

Pam Bondi did not have a prominent role on the opioid commission and only joined the panel in its final weeks. Her second and last term as Florida’s Attorney General ends in January. “She has not yet made a decision as to what she will do next,” a spokesman told CNN.

Bondi has a good relationship with President Trump and was once rumored to be the next head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — also known as the nation’s “drug czar.”

Bondi played a prominent in shutting down Florida’s pill mills, but critics say she has been slow to acknowledge that the opioid crisis has shifted away from prescription painkillers to heroin and illicit fentanyl.

“The problem is Bondi isn't doing enough about the heroin epidemic,” the Miami Sun Sentinel said in a 2017 editorial. “Considering that Bondi was once touted as a potential Trump drug czar — and infamously failed to investigate Trump University after receiving a major donation from Trump — it's no surprise that she was named to the commission. But she's still living off her reputation from the pill mill crack down.”

PAM BONDI

PAM BONDI

Christie also has a good relationship with the President Trump, but has urged that there be no interference with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – a potential stumbling block with the president. Like Sessions, Christie could also face calls to recuse himself from the investigation because he chaired Trump’s transition team.

According to CNN, other potential contenders for Attorney General are Solicitor General Noel Francisco, Rep. John Ratcliffe, (R) Texas, former Judge John Michael Luttig, Judge Edith Jones, former Judge Janice Rogers Brown, retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy, (R) South Carolina, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) South Carolina.

Matthew Whitaker, the current acting Attorney General, can serve in that temporary position for 210 days under federal law.

Trump Opioid Commission Delays Final Report

By Pat Anson, Editor

The chairman of President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has asked for – and apparently been granted – a one month delay in releasing the panel’s final report.

In a letter posted on the White House website, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the commission’s “research and policy development are still in progress,” and that he was extending the deadline from October 1 to November 1.

Christie said the opioid commission would hold its third public hearing September 27 at the White House. A notice published in the Federal Register indicates the meeting will focus on pain management and the diversion of opioid pain medication.

“The meeting will consist of statements to the Commission from invited government, nonprofit, and business organizations regarding Innovative Pain Management and Prevention Measures for Diversion followed by discussion of the issues raised,” the statement says. No list of attendees is included.

Trump Opioid commission.png

Christie’s letter also says the opioid commission will visit an Ohio medical center to learn about “innovative pain management strategies” and will meet in New Jersey with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry “to talk about partnership opportunities with the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.”

Until now the focus of the opioid commission has been on treating opioid addiction. An interim report released in July recommends increased access to addiction treatment, mandatory education for prescribers on the risks and benefits of opioid medication, and increased efforts to detect and stop the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country. There are no specific recommendations aimed at reducing access to prescription opioids or providing different forms of pain management.

Bondi Joins Commission

Another possible sign of a shift in the commission’s direction is the recent appointment of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to the panel. Bondi is now listed as member of the commission on the White House website,  although there has been no official announcement by the Trump administration. She is the fifth politician appointed to the six member panel.

Bondi played a prominent in shutting down on Florida’s pill mills several years ago, but critics say she has been slow to acknowledge that the opioid crisis has shifted away from prescription painkillers to street drugs like heroin and illicit fentanyl. Many pain patients in Florida still have trouble finding pharmacies willing to fill their opioid prescriptions.

Bondi recently joined other state attorneys general in asking pharmaceutical companies for information about their marketing, production and distribution of opioids.

“Florida citizens continue to become addicted to opioids and die daily -- meanwhile, prescription drug manufacturers, distributors and the medical profession all point fingers at each other as the cause of this national crisis,” Bondi said in a statement. “This far-reaching multistate investigation is designed to get the answers we need as quickly as possible. The industry must do the right thing. If they do not, we are prepared to litigate.”

Bondi also recently joined the National Association of Attorneys General in asking the insurance industry to do more to reduce opioid prescriptions and combat opioid abuse.

“Insurance companies can play an important role in reducing opioid prescriptions and making it easier for patients to access other forms of pain management treatment. Indeed, simply asking providers to consider providing alternative treatments is impractical in the absence of a supporting incentive structure,” the attorneys general said in a letter to an insurance industry trade group.

“Insurance companies thus are in a position to make a very positive impact in the way that providers treat patients with chronic pain.”

In addition to Bondi and Christie, opioid commission members include Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, and Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman.

The Trump administration has still not officially declared that the opioid crisis is a national emergency – something the President said he would do in August.  

Pam Bondi to Join Trump Opioid Commission

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than three weeks before its final report is due, President Trump’s opioid commission is getting a new member --   Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Bondi is a longtime supporter of the president, served as a member of his transition team, and was once rumored to be the next head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. There was speculation back in March that Bondi would be named to the opioid commission, but it was not until last week that the White House confirmed it was President Trump's "intent to appoint" Bondi to the panel, which currently has five members.

Curiously, Bondi’s office blamed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the chair of the opioid commission, for the six month delay in getting her on board. Both Bondi and Christie are lame ducks serving out their final months in elected office.

“The President always intended for the Attorney General to be on the Commission – however, Governor Christie choose (sic) to begin the Commission with only himself and four others,” Whitney Ray, Bondi’s spokesman, said in an email.

“The announcement (of Bondi's appointment) is protocol before the Executive Order is signed next week. The Attorney General will continue to work with President Trump, General Kelly, Kellyanne Conway and other leaders to combat the national opioid epidemic.“

Bondi's spokesman also reportedly said that the October 1 deadline for the commission to release its final report would be extended. No such announcement has been made and the White House website still doesn’t list Bondi as a commission member.

FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL PAM BONDI

FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL PAM BONDI

The Trump administration has also yet to issue an official declaration that the opioid crisis is a national emergency – something the President said he would do over a month ago.  

"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I am saying, officially right now, it is an emergency. It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,” Trump said on August 10.

Bondi played a prominent in shutting down Florida’s pill mills several years ago, but critics say she has been slow to acknowledge that the opioid crisis has shifted away from prescription painkillers to heroin and illicit fentanyl.

“The problem is Bondi isn't doing enough about the heroin epidemic,” the Miami Sun Sentinel said in an editorial.  “Considering that Bondi was once touted as a potential Trump drug czar — and infamously failed to investigate Trump University after receiving a major donation from Trump — it's no surprise that she was named to the commission. But she's still living off her reputation from the pill mill crack down.

“In fact, if you Google Bondi and heroin, by far the most you'll read about is when she slammed a drug dealer for stamping Trump's name on a batch of heroin. You won't find any solutions to our crisis.”

In a recent interview with WMBB-TV, Bondi warned that drug dealers were putting heroin and illicit fentanyl into counterfeit medications.

"It's a national epidemic and it truly affects everyone, and parents need to really warn their kids, their teens, adults need to know, never take a pill from someone you don't know, even if they say it is a Tylenol, an Advil or an aspirin. Don't take anything from someone who you don't know," said Bondi.

The initial focus of Trump's opioid commission has been on educating, preventing and treating opioid addiction. An interim report released by the commission in July recommends increased access to addiction treatment, mandatory education for prescribers on the risks and benefits of opioids, and increased efforts to detect and stop the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country.

There are no specific recommendations aimed at reducing access to prescription opioids, although they could be added to the commission’s final report.

In addition to Gov. Christie, commission members include Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, and Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman. No pain patients, pain management experts or practicing physicians were appointed to the panel.

Trump: ‘Fire and Fury’ for North Korea, But Not Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

President Trump has decided not to declare a national emergency to combat the opioid crisis, despite a recommendation from a White House commission that he declare an emergency to speed up federal efforts to fight it. The decision was announced just minutes after the president threatened "fire and fury" against North Korea over its nuclear program.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said an emergency declaration wasn’t necessary because the administration was already treating the opioid crisis as an emergency. But he wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

“We believe at this point that the resources that we need or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency, although all things are on the table for the president,” Price said at a news conference.  

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chairs the president's opiod commission, made a personal plea to Trump to declare a national emergency, saying 142 Americans were dying every day from drug overdoses.

“If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will. You, Mr. President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately,” Christie said.

“Our country needs you, Mr. President. We know you care deeply about this issue. We also know that you will use the authority of your office to deal with our nation’s problems.”

President Trump met with First Lady Melania Trump, Secretary Price and other administration officials for a briefing on the overdose crisis at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Gov. Christie was not present.

Trump did not mention a national emergency during the public portion of the briefing, but said drug abuse was a “tremendous problem and we’re going to get it taken care of.” He suggested that law enforcement and abstinence should be used to address it.

“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won't have a problem.  If they do start, it's awfully tough to get off.  So we can keep them from going on, and maybe by talking to youth and telling them, ‘No good, really bad for you’ in every way.  But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript.

The opioid briefing was quickly overshadowed by the looming crisis with North Korea, when a reporter asked the president about North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.  They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said. “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state.  And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Neither Trump nor Secretary Price laid out any specific steps to combat the overdose crisis. Price said his department was still “talking about what should be done” and developing a strategy.

Trump said the administration was acting to stop the flow of illegal drugs by being “very, very strong on our southern border and, I would say, the likes of which this country certainly has never seen that kind of strength."

Trump Opioid Commission Calls for National Emergency

By Pat Anson, Editor

A White House commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis has recommended that President Trump declare a national emergency to speed up federal efforts to combat the overdose epidemic, which killed over 47,000 Americans in 2015.

“If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will. You, Mr. President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately,” the commission wrote in an interim report to the president.

The 10-page report was delayed by over a month, which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attributed to over 8,000 public comments the commission received after its first meeting in June. Christie, who chairs the commission, said the panel wanted to carefully review each comment.

In addition to declaring a national emergency, the commission recommended a variety of ways to increase access to addiction treatment, mandate prescriber education about the risks and benefits of opioids, and prioritize ways to detect and stop the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country.

There were no specific recommendations aimed at reducing access to prescription opioids, although they could be added to the commission’s final report, which is due in October.

“We urge the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to begin to work immediately with the pharmaceutical industry in two areas: development of additional MAT (medication assisted treatment)... and the development of new, non-opioid pain relievers, based on research to clarify the biology of pain,” Christie said. “The nation needs more options that are not addictive.  And we need more treatment for those who are addicted.”

“I think we also have to be cognizant that the advent of new psychoactive substances such as fentanyl analogs and heroin is certainly replacing the death rate due to prescription opioids. That is going to continue until we have a handle on the supply side of the issue,” said commission member Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School.

“If we do not stop the pipeline into substance use, into addiction, into problematic use, into the entire scenario of poly-substance use, we are really not going to get a good handle on this.”     

Other measures recommended by the commission:

  • Grant waivers to states to eliminate barriers to mental health and addiction treatment
  • Increase availability of naloxone as an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses
  • Amend the Controlled Substance Act to require additional training in pain management for all prescribers
  • Prioritize funding to Homeland Security, FBI and DEA to quickly develop fentanyl detection sensors
  • Stop the flow of synthetic opioids through U.S. Postal Service
  • Enhance the sharing of data between prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs)

No estimate was provided on the cost of any of these measures.

Gov. Christie also spoke about eliminating pain levels as a “satisfaction criteria” for healthcare providers being evaluated and reimbursed for federal programs like Medicare.

“We believe that this very well may have proven to be a driver for the incredible amount of prescribing of opioids in this country. In 2015, we prescribed enough opioids to keep every adult in America fully medicated for three weeks. It’s an outrage. And we want to see if this need for pain satisfaction levels, which is part of the criteria for reimbursement, is part of the driver for this problem,” Christie said.  

Last year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) caved into pressure from politicians and anti-opioid activists by dropping all questions related to pain in patient satisfaction surveys in hospitals.  CMS agreed to make the change even though there was no evidence that the surveys contributed to excess opioid prescribing

Addiction Treatment Initial Focus of Opioid Commission

By Pat Anson, Editor

President Trump’s commission on drug addiction and the opioid crisis held its first public meeting today, a two-hour session focused largely on expanding access to addiction treatment.

Chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the commission is expected to make interim recommendations to the president in the next few weeks on how to combat drug abuse, addiction and the overdose epidemic, which is blamed for the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans last year. A final report from the commission is due by October 1.

It is not clear yet how much of a role opioid prescribing and pain medication will play in the commission’s work. Most of its five members have publicly blamed overprescribing for causing the opioid epidemic.

“No offense, but that is where this came from,” said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a commission member.

“The opioid crisis is ruining lots of people’s lives and lots of families across America," David Shulkin, Secretary of Veterans Affairs told the commission. "At the VA, my top priority is to reduce veteran suicides. And when we look at the overlap between substance abuse and opioid abuse, it’s really clear.

“We’ve been working on this for seven years and we’ve seen a 33 percent reduction in use of opioids among veterans, but we have a lot more to do.”

Shulkin did not mention that veteran suicides have soared during that period, and are now estimated at 20 veterans each day.

“We also need to look at pharmaceutical companies making generic drugs more tamper resistant and looking at making drugs that do not cause addiction,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a commission member.

Commission member Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman who has battled substance abuse himself, said there has been a “historic discrimination” against mental health and addiction treatment.

“I’m excited by the chance to kind of push for ways that we can hold insurance companies more accountable, so that the public sector doesn’t have to pick up the tab. Because its taxpayers that are picking up the tab when insurance companies continue to push folks with these illnesses off into the public system,” Kennedy said. “This is a cost shift that is a windfall for insurance companies if they can get rid of people who have mental health or addiction issues.”

Limits on Opioid Medication Not Working

“Let me be blunt. Today there is not nearly enough drug treatment capacity in America to help most of the victims of the epidemic,” said Mitchell Rosenthal, MD, who founded Phoenix House, a nationwide chain of addiction treatment centers.

“Most terrifying is the reality that nothing we are doing today has been able to halt the spread of opioid addiction. Controlling prescription opioid medication has not done so. Prescription monitoring programs, strict limits on the number of pills physicians can prescribe, and the CDC pain management guidelines seem to have capped usage of prescribed opioid medications. But overdose deaths from heroin and highly potent synthetics like fentanyl have gone through the roof.”

One activist called for wider adoption of the CDC opioid guidelines and rigid enforcement if doctors don’t follow them. Gary Mendell, the CEO and founder of Shatterproof, a non-profit focused on preventing addiction, said each state should be held accountable and federal funding reduced to states if their prescribing exceeds a certain level.

“If every primary care doctor in this country followed the CDC guideline, you would cut by more than half, instantly, the number of new people becoming addicted,” said Mendell, whose son committed suicide after years of struggle with addiction. “We need a goal for the country. Divide it up by 50 states, a proper goal developed by the CDC, and then we need to publicize it and hold people accountable. Just like you would do in any business.”

Patrick Kennedy is a member of Shatterproof's board of advisors, and Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder and Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) is a member of its "opioid overdose advisory board."

No pain patients or pain management experts testified before the commission or were appointed to the panel.

Watch below for a replay of today's meeting:

Trump Opioid Commission to Hold First Meeting

By Pat Anson, Editor

The pain community will get its first glimpse this month at how the Trump administration may address the nation’s opioid crisis, when the president’s new Drug Addiction and Opioid Commission holds its first two meetings.

The commisison's first meeting will be held Friday June 16, followed by a teleconference on Monday June 26. Both meetings are open to the public.

Details on how to watch or listen to the meetings can be found in the Federal Register, here and here.

Chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the commission will make recommendations to the president later this year on how to combat drug abuse, addiction and the overdose crisis, which is blamed for over 50,000 deaths in 2015.

The White House says the commission will “work closely” with President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner.

“I made a promise to the American people to take action to keep drugs from pouring into our country and to help those who have been so badly affected by them. Governor Christie will be instrumental in researching how best to combat this serious epidemic and how to treat those it has affected,” Trump said in a statement.  

The public can submit written comments to the commission by emailing the Office of National Drug Control Policy at commission@ondcp.eop.gov.

“I'd really like to see the commission recognize that addressing opioid use disorders through increasing access to treatment and through attempting to reduce the supply of opioids (both legal and illegal) will only go so far, and that, to be truly successful, they also must address inadequacies in the way we treat pain,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, which represents pain management physicians.

“Unless and until we reach a point where we can truly implement the kind of integrative pain care called for by every guideline and highlighted in the National Pain Strategy, we are going to be unable to succeed in addressing both of the public health crises we are encountering.”

Twillman helped draft and submit a letter to the commission signed by 73 different medical and patient advocacy groups calling for more federal funding of pain research and treatments.

“This longstanding underinvestment in pain research has resulted in a limited number of safe and effective chronic pain treatments, and according to the FDA, a field that is 'strikingly deficient' in high-quality evidence to assess risks and benefits of current treatments,” the letter states. “As a result, even highly knowledgeable health care providers are left without clear guidance, and may spend months to years with their patients experimenting with treatments in the hope of finding relief.”

Richard Martin, a retired Nevada pharmacist disabled by chronic back pain, says the first item on the commission’s agenda should be to withdraw and re-write the CDC’s opioid guideline, which discourages physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

“Since the Guideline was released, there are now tens of thousands of non-cancer pain patients on long term opioid prescription therapy who are being INVOLUNTARILY tapered down or off of their pain medications.  This has resulted in patients being under treated, left to suffer with debilitating pain.  Some of these patients have had their opioid medications abruptly discontinued throwing them into withdrawal,” Martin wrote in an email to the commission.

“There now abounds significant anecdotal evidence and significant documented media reports, that these patients who have been involuntarily tapered down or off their opioid medications, are committing suicide due to the intense pain that has resulted.” 

Background of Commission Members

In addition to Gov. Christie and Jared Kushner, the president has appointed to the commission Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, and Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman. No pain patients, pain management experts or practicing physicians were appointed to the panel.

Gov. Christie, who lost a close friend to painkiller addiction, has seen his home state of New Jersey ravaged by the opioid crisis, with 1,600 overdose deaths in 2015.  Christie championed a new state law that limits opioid prescriptions for acute pain to just five days.  

Gov. Cooper supports similar legislation now under consideration in North Carolina.  Over 1,100 North Carolinians died from opioid overdoses in 2015, with prescription opioids involved in about half of them.

Gov. Baker’s home state of Massachusetts lost over 2,000 people to opioid overdoses in 2016, most of them caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl. Baker apparently got an inside track on the commission when he discussed the opioid crisis with Ivanka Trump while sitting next to her during a National Governors Association dinner.

Bertha Madras recently authored an editorial in JAMA Psychiatry in which she claimed that prescription opioids “remain a primary driver of opioid-related fatalities” and called on the medical community to limit the supply of opioid medication.

Patrick Kennedy has battled substance abuse issues since he was teenager, including addiction to the painkiller OxyContin. He now works for Advocates for Opioid Recovery, a non-profit funded in part by Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, which makes an implant that dispenses the addiction treatment drug buprenorphine.