Doctors Prosecuted for Opioid Prescribing Should Fight Back

(Editor’s note: In 2016, Dr. Mark Ibsen’s medical license was suspended by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners for his opioid prescribing practices. Two years later, the suspension was overturned by a judge who ruled that the board made numerous errors and deprived Ibsen of his legal right to due process.)

By Mark Ibsen, MD, Guest Columnist

The headlines are pretty typical: “60 Doctors Charged in Federal Opioid Sting.” The story that follows will include multiple damning allegations and innuendos, including a claim by prosecutors that they are “targeting the worst of the worst doctors.”

Sometimes there is a trial, but often the doctors plead guilty to lesser charges and give up their license rather than mount a lengthy and costly legal defense.

Why are doctors losing every case to their medical boards and DEA? Are there that many criminal doctors? If so, what happened to our profession?

I see a pattern emerging: A doctor sees patients and treats pain in the course of their practice. As other doctors give up prescribing opiates for fear of going to prison or losing their license, the ones left end up seeing more and more patients.

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They soon become the leading prescribers of opioids in their state and become suspect just based on the volume of opioids they prescribe.

Given that law enforcement and medical board investigators usually don’t have training in statistics (or medicine), they are unable to see that the number of pain patients remains the same, but there are fewer practitioners willing to treat them.

“The Criminalization of Medicine: America’s War on Doctors” was published in 2007, but is even more relevant today.   

“Physicians have been tried and given longer prison sentences than convicted murderers; many have lost their practices, their licenses to practice medicine, their homes, their savings and everything they own,” wrote author Ronald Libby. “Some have even committed suicide rather than face the public humiliation of being treated as criminals.”

Libby wrote over a decade ago about doctors’ homes and offices being raided, DEA agents posing as pain patients to entrap them, and law enforcement task forces being created to target doctors for fraud, kickbacks and drug diversion.

Sound familiar?

I was reviewing a case about a nurse practitioner in Michigan who recently had her license suspended because she prescribed opioids “contrary to CDC guidelines” and “ranked among Michigan’s highest-volume prescribers of commonly abused and diverted controlled substances.”

This unsubstantiated crap put out by the Michigan Board of Nursing and its investigator is unethical and immoral. It should lead to a mistrial in court or dismissal at hearings. 

Fight Fire With Fire

This is an Amber alert for physicians. While pejorative headlines contaminate the discourse, the prescriber’s reputation bleeds away. The Montana Board of Medical Examiners did this in my case, and since I knew that the board was relentlessly after my license for “overprescribing” opioids, I gave up any hope of fairness.

My proposal: Lawyers representing doctors must counter the negative headlines with their own, and doctors should use whatever goodwill is left to rally their staff and patients, counteracting the pressure to testify against the doctor. 

I used what was left of my bully pulpit to save my own license and freedom. How? My assistant assembled my patients in large crowds at my hearings. I also made myself available to the media to counter the narrative put out by Mike Fanning, the board’s attorney, who went so far as to publicly question my sanity.

Fanning’s title was special assistant Attorney General, which told me the medical board works for DOJ in my state. I knew this for sure when DEA agents came to my office and tried to intimidate me.

“Doctor Ibsen, you are risking your license and your freedom by treating patients like these.”

Patients like what?

“Patients who might divert their medicine.”

Might? Isn’t that everyone? What would you have me do?

“We can’t tell you, we’re not doctors.”

My plea to doctors: Let’s reinvent our defense. The DEA and medical boards have a formula. It’s winning. 

We need a new response: Fight back and hold on. Just like with any bully, reveal their game and fight fire with fire.

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Dr. Mark Ibsen continues to practice medicine in Montana, but focuses on medical marijuana as a treatment. He no longer prescribes opioids. Six of his former patients have died after losing access to Dr. Ibsen’s care, three by suicide.

Do you have a story you want to share on PNN? Send it 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.

Is the DEA Overreaching Its Authority?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist 

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) does not have the legal authority to determine which health care activities constitute a “legitimate medical purpose.” However, an increasing number of prescribers have been subjected to DOJ criminal investigations that operate under an expanded interpretation of federal law.

In 1970, Congress passed and President Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In its broadest sense, the CSA regulates every aspect of controlled substances, from production to delivery, distribution, prescribing, possession and use. The CSA’s impact is far-reaching, touching many different sectors of our society, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement, politics, and state and federal judiciaries.

According to the CSA, a prescription for a controlled substance “must be issued for a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his professional practice.” This statutory language is at the root of the issue. But who decides what is a legitimate medical purpose?

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the branch of the DOJ that is tasked with enforcing the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States.

In the context of trying to address the opioid crisis, the DEA has taken a proactive approach in determining which medical practices have a legitimate medical purpose and which do not. This hands-on approach is in direct contravention with the CSA. 

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The DEA is effectively preempting state law as it relates to the regulation of controlled substances. In Gonzales v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the authority to determine a legitimate medical purpose rests with state governments.

This means it is state lawmakers, not federal officials, who should regulate the practice of medicine. Medical boards are established by the authority of each state to protect the health, safety and welfare of patients through proper licensing and regulation of physicians and other practitioners.

If a doctor engages in an obviously nefarious activity, such as selling or trading prescriptions for sex or money, then that doctor is not in any way prescribing for a legitimate or legal medical purpose under the CSA. Remedies for this conduct would be within the authority of the DOJ, as well as state regulators.

The key phrases -- "legitimate medical purpose" and "in the usual course of a professional practice" -- are not defined in the CSA. This omission, unfortunately, has invited conjecture about the meaning of the phrases in recent years. The only way the phrase "legitimate medical purpose" would have any legal meaning would be if the concept of an "illegitimate medical purpose" were defined by the CSA -- and it is not.

Moreover, the words "legitimate" and "medical" are redundant. The practice of medicine is inherently legitimate, according to the CSA. The phrase "legitimate medical purpose" can be reduced to "medical purpose" without changing its meaning.

Any practice that is medical is legitimate and should be deemed consistent with the CSA regulation. The CSA, in other words, precludes the possibility that doctors who prescribe high doses of opioids have behaved criminally based only on the level of doses they prescribe.

Standard of Care

The DOJ is now using deviation from the “standard of care” to determine whether or not practitioners have a legitimate medical purpose to prescribe opioids. A standard of care is generally considered the customary or usual practice of the average physician.

In an attempt to address the opioid problem, the DOJ has hired medical experts who claim that any deviation from standard of care amounts to practicing without a legitimate medical purpose. In some instances, the government's experts have even used the CDC opioid guideline’s dose recommendation as a test of whether or not the prescribing of opioids has a legitimate medical purpose.

Using deviations from "standard of care" as criteria for compliance with the CSA is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court ruling in Gonzalez v Oregon, which found that the Attorney Generalis not authorized to make a rule declaring illegitimate a medical standard for care and treatment of patients that is specifically authorized under state law.”

Even substandard treatment by providers is not necessarily criminal behavior and should rarely involve prosecution by the DOJ. This is supported by a 1983 statement in a DEA newsletter that declares acts of prescribing or dispensing controlled substances lawful when they are done within the course of a provider’s professional practice. Even if a physician's behavior reflects the grossest form of medical misconduct or negligence, it is nevertheless legal.

The information provided in the newsletter isn't an opinion. It's the law.

Unquestionably, prescribers should be held to a high standard of care at all times. However, it is the responsibility of state medical boards to hold them to that standard. It is not the DOJ's role to determine the quality or boundaries of the practice of medicine.

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 Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

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.

CDC: Opioid Guideline Should Not Be Used to Taper Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken its first concrete step to address the widespread misuse and misapplication of its opioid prescribing guideline.

In a commentary published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the guideline’s authors say the agency does not support abrupt tapering or discontinuation of opioid medication, and that the guideline’s recommendation that daily doses be limited to no more than 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) should only be applied to patients who are starting opioid therapy.

“Unfortunately, some policies and practices purportedly derived from the guideline have in fact been inconsistent with, and often go beyond, its recommendations,” wrote Deborah Dowell, MD, Tamara Haegerich, PhD, and Roger Chou, MD. “A consensus panel has highlighted these inconsistencies, which include inflexible application of recommended dosage and duration thresholds and policies that encourage hard limits and abrupt tapering of drug dosages, resulting in sudden opioid discontinuation or dismissal of patients from a physician’s practice.”

The co-authors also noted that the guideline “does not address or suggest discontinuation of opioids already prescribed at higher dosages,” nor does it seek to deny opioids to patients with cancer, sickle cell disease or recovering from surgical procedures.

The CDC’s clarification was cheered by patient advocates, who have been calling on the agency to address the suicides, patient abandonment and other unintended consequences of the guideline for over three years.

“The statement from the CDC is a long-awaited, robust clarification that has come at a critical time. They clearly defined that its Guideline cannot and should not be invoked to justify the forced reduction or denial of opioid pain medication to patients who use opioids to manage their long-term pain,” said Andrea Anderson, a patient advocate with the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP).

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The CDC’s controversial guideline was released in March 2016 as a voluntary set of recommendations meant to discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic non-cancer pain. But the guideline was quickly adopted by states, insurers, pharmacies, practitioners and even law enforcement agencies, who saw it as a mandatory policy that all physicians should follow to reduce rates of opioid addiction and overdose.

Reports soon began surfacing of patients being forcibly tapered off opioids or being abandoned by doctors who no longer wanted to treat them. Within months of the guideline’s release, CDC was warned by its own public relations consultants that “doctors are following these guidelines as strict law” and that some patients “are now left with little to no pain management.”

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

‘Unintended Harms’

Not until this month did CDC acknowledge that its guideline was causing patient harm.

“CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield wrote in an April 10 letter to a group of healthcare professionals. who had asked the agency to make a “bold clarification” of the guideline.

Redfield’s letter was sent the day after the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly taper or discontinue opioids. The FDA said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients, including withdrawal, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.    

“The clarification is an essential beginning because it is the CDC guideline that has been used by law enforcement agencies to surveil doctors and by major insurers and pharmacies in ways that deny pain patients access to opioid analgesia,” said Kate Nicholoson, a civil rights attorney and pain patient.  

It is the CDC guideline that has been used by law enforcement agencies to surveil doctors and by major insurers and pharmacies in ways that deny pain patients access to opioid analgesia.
— Kate Nicholson, Civil Rights Attorney

“Given the harms suffered by pain patients, a muscular, public-facing clarification from the CDC was needed. We hope that this action and the warning the FDA issued last week against abrupt tapering of pain patients will mark a beginning in protecting the rights of patients who use opioid medication appropriately to manage pain.” 

But other patient advocates wonder why it took so long for the CDC to act.

“It's gratifying to see CDC admit that its guideline is being misinterpreted and misapplied, as many of us have been warning for some time,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, former Executive Director of the Association of Integrative Pain Management. “It's a bit puzzling to me why it has taken them three years to do so, when many of us, myself included, told them within days of the guideline's issuance that these things were going to happen.

“Unfortunately, we've spent the past three years watching three dozen states violate CDC's stated intent that the guideline not be legislated, not to mention the untold numbers of insurance companies, health care systems, private practices, and pharmacy chains that have created a whole population of opioid refugees by misusing the guideline. Serious harms, including patient deaths, have resulted, and there is virtually no evidence that the intended effect of reducing prescription opioid overdose deaths has occurred, while overall opioid overdose deaths continue to climb rapidly.”

The New England Journal of Medicine is a respected publication with a wide reach among healthcare professionals, but it is not clear what CDC will do to caution states, insurers, pharmacies and law enforcement agencies about their misuse of the guideline.

“Unless Congress and the Executive Branch tell the DEA (and by association, state drug enforcement authorities and prosecutors) to stand down from persecuting doctors, I don't see any useful impact for this statement at all,” Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, of ATIP wrote in an email. “Doctors will continue to leave pain management and to desert their patients until they can be assured they will not be sanctioned, so long as they act in good faith to treat pain and manage their patients.” 

In recent months, federal prosecutors in Wisconsin and several other states sent letters to hundreds of physicians warning them that their opioid prescribing practices exceed those recommended by the CDC. The doctors were identified through data-mining of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which have been weaponized to target physicians. 

“Practitioners were identified where they prescribed on average 90 MMEs (or more) per patient per day. That’s the threshold where the CDC and the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board say there is no real evidence to suggest that above that amount has any better effect on chronic pain,” a DOJ spokesperson told PNN.  

Just last week, a DEA task force charged dozens of doctors and other healthcare providers with illegal opioid prescribing. Prosecutors say more criminal cases are in the pipeline. 

"We have hyper-accurate data at the DEA and other agencies in the federal government where we are able to (use) that data and we can sort of pinpoint where these pills are being over-prescribed just by the population center in which they're being prescribed," said Jay Town, a federal prosecutor in Alabama.  "There are more doctors out there, there are more people working in clinics, and physicians’ offices, or pharmacies, or in compounding pharmacies, that we still have ongoing investigations or beginning investigations.” 

‘Achieve Widespread Adoption’ 

The CDC may have finally acknowledged the “unintended harms” caused by the guideline, but the data-mining and wholesale adoption of its recommendations are exactly what the agency outlined in a 2015 CDC memo obtained by PNN:   

“Efforts are required to disseminate the guideline and achieve widespread adoption and implementation of the recommendations in clinical settings. CDC is dedicated to translating this guideline into user-friendly materials for distribution and use by health systems, medical professional societies, insurers, public health departments, health information technology developers, and providers, and engaging in dissemination efforts.  

Activities such as development of clinical decision support in electronic health records to assist providers’ treatment decisions at the point of care, identification of mechanisms that insurers and pharmacy benefit plan managers can use to promote safer prescribing within plans, and development of clinical quality improvement measures and initiatives to improve prescribing and patient care.”

Can the CDC undo all the harm its “user-friendly materials” have caused over the last three years? Will states be advised to rollback their laws and regulations? Will insurers and pharmacies be told to stop limiting the dose of opioid prescriptions? And what about the patients who committed suicide? The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

“That no one at CDC anticipated that the guideline would be misinterpreted and misapplied in this way is hard to swallow,” said Twillman. “I would have hoped that they would be vigilant for such occurrences, and taken action swiftly and effectively when they became apparent.”

60 Arrested in Latest Crackdown on Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Sixty people in five states face charges of illegal opioid prescribing and healthcare fraud in the latest federal crackdown on opioids. The arrests are the first since the Justice Department established an opioid strike force last year to concentrate on drug crimes in the Appalachian region.

The defendents include 31 doctors, 7 pharmacists, 8 nurse practitioners and 7 other licensed medical professionals.

“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. 

“But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis. One of the Department's most promising new initiatives is the Criminal Division's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which began its work in December.  Just four months later, this team of federal agents and 14 prosecutors has charged 60 defendants for alleged crimes related to millions of prescription opioids.” 

The charges involve over 350,000 opioid prescriptions and over 32 million pills. A federal prosecutor claimed that was the equivalent of a dose of opioids for every man, woman and child in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Alabama.

In one case, a doctor and several pharmacists are accused of operating a pill mill in Dayton, Ohio. Over a two-year period, the pharmacy dispensed over 1.75 million pills. 

In Kentucky, a doctor operating a pain management clinic allegedly provided pre-signed, blank prescriptions to office staff who then used them to prescribe controlled substances when he was out of the office. 

And in Tennessee, a doctor who called himself the “Rock Doc” allegedly prescribed dangerous combinations of opioids and benzodiazepines, sometimes in exchange for sexual favors.

“Reducing the illicit supply of opioids is a crucial element of President Trump’s plan to end this public health crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.  “It is also vital that Americans struggling with addiction have access to treatment and that patients who need pain treatment do not see their care disrupted, which is why federal and local public health authorities have coordinated to ensure these needs are met in the wake of this enforcement operation.”

A DOJ press release provided a list of hotlines, websites and other resources where effected patients can get addiction treatment. None of them, however, appear to offer pain management.

Pain patients are often the forgotten victims in law enforcement crackdowns on healthcare providers. Dawn Anderson, for example, a double amputee and diabetic, died last month in “sheer agony” because she was no longer able to get opioid medication from a pain management doctor who stopped practicing medicine after he was accused and convicted of healthcare fraud.    

Most Overdoses Don’t Involve Rx Opioids

The Appalachian region – and West Virginia in particular – has been ground zero in the opioid crisis. But a new study by researchers at West Virginia University shows just how much the crisis has shifted away from prescription opioids.

Researchers analyzed over 8,800 drug-related deaths in West Virginia from 2005 to 2017 and found that deaths involving fentanyl soared by 1,325% over that period.

From 2005 to 2014, prescription opioids were involved in almost 60% of drug related deaths in West Virginia, but from 2015 to 2017 they were only involved in about 30% of drug deaths.

West Virginians are now twice as likely to die from fentanyl than they are from oxycodone. Deaths linked to fentanyl, heroin, alcohol, alprazolam (Xanax) and cocaine outnumber those from oxycodone or any other opioid pain reliever.

Fentanyl and its analogs are synthetic opioids 50-100 stronger than morphine. They’ve become a scourge on the black market, where they are frequently mixed with heroin and cocaine to boost their potency or used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication.

Reducing the supply of prescription opioids and locking up doctors isn’t going to solve the fentanyl problem.

"One of the proven ways to reduce overdoses is to decrease the number of people who are addicted and using. But with fentanyl, you could halve the number of addicts in West Virginia, and the overdose rate could still go up because the strength of the drug coming in is so much stronger and can vary widely from one day to the next," said Gordon Smith, MD, an epidemiologist in the West Virginia School of Public Health. "This is an absolute quandary."

West Virginia's increase in fentanyl-related deaths is part of a national trend. As the CDC reported, deaths from fentanyl overdoses spiked across the United States in 2015 and are still climbing. West Virginia leads the nation in fentanyl-related deaths and has the highest per capita rate of overdose deaths overall.

CVS Fined $535,000 for Filling Forged Opioid Prescriptions

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

CVS Pharmacy has agreed to pay a $535,000 fine to resolve allegations that several of its Rhode Island stores filled dozens of forged prescriptions for Percocet, a potent opioid painkiller. It’s the latest in a series of fines the nation’s largest pharmacy chain has paid for violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

According to DEA investigators, CVS pharmacists filled 39 forged prescriptions for Percocet between 2015 and 2017 even though they “knew or had reason to know that the prescription in question was invalid or unauthorized.”

In a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, CVS agreed to pay the fine while making no admission of any liability or wrongdoing. The company said it wanted to avoid the expense and uncertainty of going to trial. In return, the DOJ agreed to drop all civil or criminal prosecution of the case.

“DEA registrants like CVS have a corresponding responsibility to dispense controlled substances in accordance with the Controlled Substance Act,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Brian Boyle. 

“Pharmacies put patients at risk when they dispense Schedule II narcotics, which have the highest potential for abuse, without a valid and legal prescription.  Today’s settlement demonstrates DEA’s commitment to work with our law enforcement and regulatory partners to ensure that these rules and regulations are followed.”

It’s not the first time CVS has been accused of lax or fraudulent behavior involving opioid medication.

In 2017, CVS agreed to pay a $5 million fine to settle allegations that several of its pharmacies in California failed to detect thefts of the opioid painkiller hydrocodone.

In 2016, CVS agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine to resolve allegations that 50 of its pharmacies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire filled forged prescriptions for opioids. One forger signed a dentist’s name on 131 prescriptions for hydrocodone and had them filled at eight different CVS stores.

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And in 2015, CVS paid a $22 million fine after two of its pharmacies in Florida were found to be routinely filling bogus prescriptions for painkillers, including some for customers as far away as Kentucky.

All of these cases were settled out of court.

In 2018, CVS angered pain patients when it began to limit the initial dose of opioids to 7 days’ supply for customers enrolled in CVS Caremark health plans. For both acute and chronic pain patients, CVS said daily doses of opioids should not exceed 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and patients would be required to use immediate release formulations. CVS said it was making the CDC opioid guideline the “default approach” to prescribing opioids.

Last week, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield acknowledged for the first time the agency’s voluntary guideline was causing “unintended harms” and that patients should only be tapered to lower doses “if a patient would like to taper.”  

“The Guideline does not endorse mandated or abrupt dose reduction or discontinuation, as these actions can result in patient harm,” Redfield said. “The Guideline includes recommendations for clinicians to work with patients to taper or reduce dosage only when patient harm outweighs patient benefit of opioid therapy.”

Nothing in the guideline empowers pharmacists to set dose limitations. CVS operates 9,700 pharmacies and 1,100 walk-in medical clinics nationwide

‘Mexican Oxy’ Flooding U.S. Black Market

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

New York City police and DEA agents have announced the seizure of 20,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills made with illicit fentanyl. The pills, which have an estimated street value of $600,000, are blue in color and stamped “M” on one side and “30” on the other, making them virtually indistinguishable from prescription oxycodone.

The fentanyl pills are believed to have originated in Mexico. Known on the street as “Mexican Oxy,” the highly potent counterfeit pills are often cheaper and easier to obtain than pharmaceutical-grade oxycodone. Black market 30 mg oxycodone pills sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and are surfacing around the country.

“If you take prescription pills that did not come directly from a pharmacy, you are risking your life,” said New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan. “Throughout New York City, we have seen a spate of cases involving tens of thousands of potentially lethal fentanyl pills masquerading as oxycodone.

“Just because black market pills have the same color and design as legitimate pills, it does not mean they are safe. The ingredients and potency are all unknown, and minuscule amounts of fentanyl can cause overdose or death. Consuming a counterfeit pill is akin to playing Russian Roulette.”

Overdose deaths in New York City are at record-high levels and fentanyl is involved in over half of them. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A customer accustomed to taking oxycodone would not necessarily have the tolerance to ingest illicit fentanyl without suffering an overdose.

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Fentanyl powder is typically produced by illicit labs in China and then smuggled into the U.S. through Mexico. The powder is transformed into tablets by pill presses purchased online and then sold by drug traffickers. Four arrests in New York were made in connection with the latest seizure.

“These arrests highlight a growing trend in illicit street drugs which increases the risk of drug overdose,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan. “Traffickers are mass producing pseudo-pharmaceutical pills made of heroin, fentanyl and other illicit drugs in makeshift laboratories throughout New York City. These pills attract users because they are more convenient and less conspicuous; but users should beware because they are unregulated and lethal.”

Fentanyl Seizures at Mexican Border

Mexican Oxy is also blamed for a rash of overdoses in Arizona, where fentanyl deaths have tripled in recent years.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in 30 years, this toll that it’s taken on families,” Doug Coleman, DEA Special Agent in Charge of Arizona told the Associated Press. “The crack (cocaine) crisis was not as bad.”  

Last month, the U.S. Border Patrol announced its biggest fentanyl seizure ever — over 250 pounds were found in a truckload of cucumbers at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona.

Most of the fentanyl was in powder form and over two pounds were made up of pills. Together, they had the potential to kill millions of people.  

Just because black market pills have the same color and design as legitimate pills, it does not mean they are safe.
— Bridget Brennan, NYC Narcotics Prosecutor

Most of the fentanyl seized by law enforcement is found hidden inside vehicles at official border crossings around Nogales and San Diego, according to the AP. Smaller shipments of fentanyl are sent directly to the U.S. from China through the mail. The Postal Service’s Inspector General recently reported that over 90 percent of illegal online pharmacies use the mail to ship illicit drugs.

The Postal Service is prohibited from opening packages without a search warrant and is obligated to accept inbound international mail. This makes it more difficult for postal inspectors to identify and track packages suspected of containing illicit drugs. By comparison, private carriers are able to open and inspect packages and can track shipments from beginning to end.

The Inspector General recommended that Congress pass legislation that would give postal inspectors authorization to open and inspect domestic packages suspected of carrying illicit drugs.

The 7 Golden Rules of Opioid Prescribing for Patients

By Jeffrey Grolig, MD, JD, Guest Columnist  

“Don’t do it!” is the advice often given to brand new physicians about whether to specialize in pain medicine. Increasing numbers of doctors are being fined, disciplined or arrested due to scrutiny caused by the nation’s opioid crisis. Every single opioid prescription, even the mildest painkiller, is being tracked, and prescription drug database searches tell the DEA and state board investigators who to watch.  

The unfortunate innocent victims of this crisis have been those legitimate patients who suffer in chronic pain, with up to 100 million in the United States alone. Each time a physician or pharmacy is attacked, thousands of pain patients must pay the price.

A pharmacy in my northern California town recently closed after the owner was charged with 200 counts of failing to properly keep records. Each count carries a $20,000 fine.

A local physician’s license was restricted for failure to warn in writing about the risks of combining sleeping pills with opioids. This family physician had already spent $56,000 in legal fees for previous documentation lapses.

A pulmonary specialist with English as his second language was arrested for prescribing codeine-containing cough syrup to four undercover DEA agents posing as patients. He is facing 20 years in prison and $2 million in fines.   

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I still accept pain patients, but my background as an attorney compels me to use “universal precautions,” something I advise every physician who prescribes opioids to do. This boils down to following what I call “The 7 Golden Rules of Opioid Prescribing.” If you, as the patient, understand that your doctor must follow these 7 golden rules, it will make it much easier for you to obtain excellent pain management, including opioids.  

I developed the 7 golden rules by analyzing the most common documentation lapses of doctors who were disciplined or prosecuted. I included them when I wrote the “Physician Primer: Prescribe Like a Lawyer” to empower doctors to think and practice like a lawyer and not lose their careers over simple documentation errors.

If you write a cover letter like the one below to your current or prospective physician, touching on each and every one of these 7 golden rules, your pain control will vastly improve, I promise. 

Dear Doctor,

#1 I have a legitimate medical reason for needing opioids. My medical diagnosis is… (be specific: examples include diabetic neuropathy, failed spine surgery, spinal stenosis, CRPS, etc.). Attached is my MRI report (or EMG, CT, X-ray, Bone Scan, lab test, etc.) proving this.  

#2 I am not now, nor have I ever been addicted to prescription medication, illegal drugs or alcohol.   

#3 I have no depression, psychosis or bipolar disorder.  

#4 I understand all the risks of opioids and related medications, as well as my options for all non-opioid alternative treatments.  

#5 I am not taking benzodiazepines and drinking alcohol.  

#6 I have attached my last 12 months of medical records (not applicable if you have been with the same physician for one year).  

#7 These records reflect that I am an honest, compliant and responsible patient.  

Respectfully,  

Pain Patient

If you do not meet these criteria, it means you are in a higher risk category and would be better managed at a university medical center or a teaching hospital. To my knowledge, the DEA or state medical board has never raided a teaching hospital or university medical center. 

The best way a patient can signal to me they are responsible and low risk is to write a letter covering each of the 7 golden rules, attached to one year’s worth of medical records. This essentially does my work for me, and it makes it easy for me to decide whether or not to accept the patient.

If your doctor still won’t budge, hand him my free “Primer Flyer,” a pamphlet that explains risk management, that’s available on my website: ThePhysicianPrimer.com.

If all else fails, have him watch my YouTube video on The 7 Golden Rules of Opioid Prescribing for Doctors. 

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Jeffrey W. Grolig, MD, JD, is a board-certified specialist in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. He has taught at UC Davis Medical Center in both the departments of Family Practice and Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. Dr. Grolig has formerly worked as a licensed attorney and has authored 6 books.

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.

Is Kratom Being Spiked With Other Drugs?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s no secret that illicit fentanyl has become a scourge on the black market. The potent synthetic opioid – about 100 times stronger than morphine --  is now involved in over half of U.S. overdoses. Fentanyl is being found in a wide variety of street drugs, including heroin, meth, cocaine and marijuana, and it is increasingly used in the manufacture of counterfeit painkillers and other fake medications.  

“As traffickers have expanded into the sale of fentanyl-containing counterfeit pills, the scope of users who were exposed to fentanyl increased significantly; the prescription pain reliever misuser population is almost ten times that of the heroin user population,” a recent DEA report warns. “The presence of fentanyl-containing counterfeit pills in an area is increasingly associated with spikes in overdose deaths.”

Although there is no hard evidence that drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with kratom to boost its potency, some in the kratom community think it is inevitable that someone will try. There have already been cases of kratom products being adulterated with hydrocodone and other opioids.

“I don’t know that there’s been a case of fentanyl in kratom, but since that’s what they are finding in everything else and that is the most dangerous drug out there now, it stands to reason that someone who would spike kratom with hydrocodone would now spike it with fentanyl either wittingly or unwittingly,” said Jane Babin, PhD, a molecular biologist and consultant to the American Kratom Association (AKA), an advocacy group for kratom vendors and consumers.

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Like other dietary supplements, kratom products are essentially unregulated and there are little or no quality controls.

In an effort to change that, this week the AKA officially launched a good manufacturing practice (GMP) program, which will require producers of kratom products to meet strict manufacturing standards verified by a third-party auditor if they want to be certified by the AKA.  

"The AKA GMP Standards Program will help reassure the public and demonstrate to the FDA, DEA, lawmakers, and others that the kratom industry is acting responsibly," AKA president Dave Herman said in a statement. 

"The AKA GMP Standards Program will also protect kratom consumers from unscrupulous vendors who produce kratom products using sloppy manufacturing procedures that allow for contamination, and equally important the standards program will exclude vendors who deliberately adulterate kratom products to boost their effect by adding dangerous and sometimes deadly substances like fentanyl or morphine." 

In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom, which has been used in southeast Asia for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. Kratom is widely available online and in smoke shops, but the quality of what’s being sold and where it comes from is often unknown – even by the people selling it.

“The stuff that’s sold as kratom in the United States cannot be reliably proven to be kratom,” Edward Boyer, MD, a Professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School, recently told PNN.  “There is evidence to suggest that some of the kratom sold in the United States is adulterated to make it more potent, to make it more powerful.”

Boyer says some kratom products have been found to contain artificially high levels of 7-hydroxymitragynine, one of the naturally occurring alkaloids that make kratom act on opioid receptors in the brain. Manufacturers may also be lacing kratom with opioids and other drugs.

“One theory is that some unscrupulous vendors may be spiking kratom with something more potent to drive business. It may be even more prevalent than we know, which could account for some of the reports on Reddit and Blue Light (online message boards) that say kratom is addictive and it does lead to euphoria,” Babin said in an email.

A handful of states have already banned kratom and there is speculation that the DEA will soon try again to schedule it as a controlled substance, something the agency backed away from in 2016 after a public outcry. The FDA has recently mounted a public relations campaign against kratom, what the AKA calls a “shadow ban” that has led to kratom shortages.

Could the AKA’s effort to improve the quality of kratom products backfire by giving ammunition to federal regulators who want a nationwide ban?

“That kratom may be adulterated is not a reason to ban it.  There are reports all the time of dietary supplements, even ones sold by reputable companies like GNC and Vitamin Shoppe, are adulterated with prescription drugs, banned substances and who knows what else,” says Babin.

“The other thing to consider is that if kratom is banned, demand may lead to a black market.  It will likely be smuggled in and/or products not containing kratom will be sold as kratom and those may be spiked with other substances, including fentanyl.”

Is FDA ‘Shadow Ban’ Causing Kratom Shortages?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The American Kratom Association (AKA), an advocacy group for kratom vendors and consumers, came out with an alarming bulletin this week.

“BREAKING: FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is shutting down kratom supplies shipments to the United States. The AKA is running out of time and resources to make sure we can secure the supply chain for you to purchase kratom,” read the post on the AKA’s Facebook page.

The bulletin claimed the FDA was trying to “criminalize kratom users” and then launched into a fundraising appeal asking supporters to “dig deep and send a contribution right now” to the AKA to support its lobbying efforts.

At best, the AKA’s bulletin was premature. At worst, it was misleading. Gottlieb is certainly no friend of kratom, but he’s not issued orders shutting down imports of kratom, an herbal supplement long used as a stimulant and pain reliever in southeast Asia.

The FDA declared an “import alert” for kratom in 2012 and again in 2014 – long before Gottlieb became commissioner – authorizing the seizure of dietary supplements containing kratom. Several large shipments were confiscated as a result of the alert, but clandestine imports of kratom into the U.S. continued largely unchecked.

Kratom has since become widely available online and in many smoke shops, and millions of Americans have discovered kratom can be used to self-treat their chronic pain, anxiety, depression and addiction.

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AKA president Dave Herman told PNN the bulletin was based largely on anecdotal reports from a handful of vendors who had kratom shipments confiscated in recent months.  

“I’m sure some of them don’t want to talk about it, but I’ve talked to at least four or five that said their stuff has been grabbed,” Herman said. “I know of one vendor that had a hundred tons literally confiscated.

“We feel from day one that commissioner Gottlieb has been running a shadow ban. It’s clearly an attempt to ban and they’re using any and all portals to do that. But can I hand you a piece of paper (from FDA) that says, ‘We’re doing it?’ No.”

Herman said some kratom vendors are down to a few weeks supply.  

“There’s a lot of fear about what’s going on out there,” he said.

Kratom Demonized

Inflammatory rhetoric and scare tactics have become increasingly common in the escalating debate over kratom.

Gottlieb publicly calls kratom an “opioid” – even though its active ingredients are alkaloids -- while claiming there is “no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use.” Last year, the FDA claimed dozens of fatal overdoses were associated with kratom, while admitting nearly all of the deaths involved other drugs and “could not be fully assessed.”

Several kratom products were recalled earlier this year during an FDA and CDC investigation of a small salmonella outbreak associated with the herb. Although the source of the outbreak was never identified and only about 200 people were sickened, Gottlieb said “anyone consuming kratom may be placing themselves at a significant risk of being exposed to salmonella.”

More recently, Ohio health officials have claimed kratom produces a “heroin-like high” and was being used intravenously by drug addicts – a notion that most kratom users found preposterous.

“Who the hell is injecting kratom? These people are out of their minds,” one reader told us.

The FDA did not directly respond to a request for comment on the AKA’s bulletin, only saying that “certain kratom products and importers” were targeted in its 2012 import alert. But Herman says it is clear to him what’s happening in 2018. “It’s a full demonization. I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” he said.

Herman believes federal health officials may be trying to avoid scheduling kratom as a controlled substance, something the DEA tried and failed to do in 2016 after a public outcry.  Scheduling kratom would require a public comment period and likely get Congress involved, which the FDA can avoid with a “shadow ban.”

“It’s a concerted effort. There is a (kratom) shortage out there. The shortage didn’t exist previously,” Herman said. “The range I’ve heard of any (vendor) inventory is the highest is 6 months and the lowest is two weeks. There’s definitely a movement there and its harder and harder to get the product into the country.”

When asked if the AKA bulletin could incite fear and lead to hoarding and price increases, Herman was circumspect.

“Some people will stock up. Some won’t,” he said. “How people react, I can’t anticipate. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that’s there’s a shortage of product. And I think prices have already risen, best as I can tell.”   

Kratom Missing From DEA Report on Drug Threats

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Drug Enforcement Administration has released the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, the agency’s annual report on drug trafficking and drug abuse in the United States.

Over 150 pages long, the annual report paints a grim picture of a nation overwhelmed by a tsunami of illicit fentanyl, heroin, prescription opioids, meth, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs that the DEA says are having “a devastating effect on our country.”

Conspicuously absent from the report is kratom, the herbal supplement that the FDA blames for dozens of fatal overdoses and the DEA once tried to list as a dangerous controlled substance — the same substance that Ohio health officials call a “psychoactive plant” that produces a “heroin-like high.” Ohio will soon join five other states in banning the sale and possession of kratom.

But there’s not a word about kratom in the National Drug Threat Assessment. There never has been.

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“It is not surprising.  Kratom is not the ‘dangerous opioid’ that the FDA has made it out to be,” says Jane Babin, PhD, a molecular biologist and consultant to the American Kratom Association, an organization of kratom vendors and consumers.  “It does not kill throngs of people like heroin and synthetic opioids. Everything we know about kratom is that people use it to avoid much more dangerous prescription and illicit opioids.”

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural pain reliever and stimulant. In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom and use it to self-treat their chronic pain, addiction, anxiety and depression.  

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As kratom has become more popular, the public health campaign against it has intensified. A small salmonella outbreak earlier this year in kratom products led to several recalls and stark warnings that “anyone consuming kratom may be placing themselves at a significant risk.”

Nearly 200 people were sickened in the outbreak, but no one died and the CDC never identified the source of the salmonella.

FDA commission Scott Gottlieb, MD, has taken to calling kratom an “opioid” (its active ingredients are alkaloids) and regularly tweets that consumers “should be aware of the mounting risks” of using the herb.

Yet there’s been no mention of kratom in the DEA’s annual assessment of drug risks in the United States.    

““Every year that goes by in which alleged ‘kratom-associated deaths’ don’t even merit a mention by DEA in this report further drives home the relative safety of kratom,” says Babin. “The only thing peculiar is that FDA refuses to acknowledge these facts.”

Cutting Rx Opioid Supply Is Not Stopping Diversion

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Drug diversion is an increasingly important factor in the opioid overdose crisis. A new report from Protenus found that 18.7 million pills, valued at around $164 million, were lost due to drug diversion in the United States during the first half of 2018. This represents a vast increase over 2017, when 20.9 million pills were diverted during the entire year.

As we’ve described previously, drug diversion in the supply chain is a vast, complex and old phenomenon. And it is rapidly worsening.

According to the textbook, “Prescription Drug Diversion and Pain,” drug thefts from hospitals “have increased significantly within the past decade as street prices have climbed sharply for diverted prescription opioids and benzodiazepines.”

In other words, the steep cuts in opioid production that began in 2017 aren’t working. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions was wrong when he said, "The more a drug is diverted, the more its production should be limited." A tightening supply has actually resulted in more diversion.

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Drug diversion can be broadly divided into three categories: clinical diversion, personal diversion and industrial diversion. The first, according to Protenus, is drug diversion by healthcare workers. The second is the sale or transfer by a patient who received a legitimate prescription to a third party. And the third is everything else, from diversion by employees at manufacturing facilities to theft in distribution centers or pharmacies.

Personal diversion has gotten substantial attention in recent years. Prescription drug monitoring databases, pain agreements, and urine drug testing are all intended to help prevent such diversion.

Clinical drug diversion is a long-standing problem in healthcare that has garnered more interest recently. The bipartisan opioid bill recently passed by Congress includes a provision that allows hospice workers to destroy opioid medication that has expired or is no longer needed by a patient. The National Institutes of Health has also awarded a grant to further expand efforts to detect opioid and other drug theft in hospital systems.

Industrial diversion is less well known, but appears to be a longstanding problem. In the book “Dopesick,” journalist Beth Macy writes that as early as 2001 the DEA was investigating lax security standards at Purdue Pharma manufacturing plants after the arrest of two Purdue employees accused of trying to steal thousands of pills.

Between 2009 and 2012, over 63,000 thefts of opioids and other controlled substances were reported to the DEA. Pharmacies (66%) and hospitals (19%) accounted for the vast majority of those drug thefts.

And in 2007, an audit of CMS Medicare Part D payments identified 228,000 prescription payments with invalid prescriber identifications for Schedule II drugs.

In other words, tens of thousands of drug thefts and hundreds of thousands of fraudulent prescriptions are occurring annually, leading to millions of prescription pills entering the illegal market. This may help explain how OxyContin entered the black market so quickly and completely.

As Beth Macy writes: “The town pharmacist on the other line was incredulous: “Man, we only got it a month or two ago. And you’re telling me it’s already on the street?””

The National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and the DEA Diversion Control Division are attempting to address industrial diversion. But available evidence suggests there is much more work needed to secure the entire prescription drug supply chain.

As the opioid overdose crisis continues to evolve toward poly-drug substance abuse, drug diversion will play an increasingly significant role in the illegal supply of prescription pharmaceuticals unless the entire supply chain is secured. This will require far more than the easy tasks of checking a prescription database or legislating pill counts. The hard part of reducing drug diversion remains to be done.

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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.

Former Tennant Patients Get New Doctor

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At a time when many pain patients have difficulty finding doctors willing to treat them, some of the sickest and most complicated pain patients in the U.S. have found a new physician. Or to be more precise, she found them.

Dr. Margaret Aranda is treating former patients of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician who recently retired from clinical practice.  Tennant was seeing about 150 patients with severe intractable pain at his West Covina pain clinic. Most suffer from arachnoiditis, a chronic and painful disease of the spinal cord, and traveled to California from out-of-state because they could not find effective treatment locally.

Tennant, who is 77, is a beloved figure in the pain community. He was forced into retirement after the DEA raided his clinic last year and alleged he was running a pill mill. No charges were ever filed, but Tennant reluctantly agreed to close his clinic on the advice of his lawyer and doctor. That’s when Aranda stepped in and offered to take on Tennant’s patients.

“I feel very happy to be here and to be doing this and to feel qualified to do it because of my experience, my background and my education. But I think the thing I love the most is the connection I have with patients who understand that I’ve been through a lot myself,” said Aranda, an anesthesiologist whose medical career was put on hold for several years while she recovered from a car accident that left her with traumatic brain injuries.

“They just seem be relieved that they can talk to somebody who knows what it feels like. I think Dr. Tennant did that for them too. He wasn’t sick like a lot us were sick, but he carried that empathy with him. I find this to be very spiritual. I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time in my life and everything I went through prepared me for this.”

DR. MARGARET ARANDA

DR. MARGARET ARANDA

Tennant had success treating patients with an unusual combination of high dose opioid prescriptions, hormones, anti-inflammatory drugs and other medications, which Aranda plans to continue.

“I’m working to decrease the opioids as much as possible. For some patients that’s totally impossible, for others it’s not,” she told PNN. “I really think what we’re doing is redefining palliative care. I tell people this isn’t a pain clinic. This is a ‘keep you out of a wheelchair’ clinic. Keep you in the family. Keep you getting out of your house here and there.”

“Dr. Aranda is very intelligent and picked up on the scientific precepts of this disease and other things very rapidly,” says Tennant. “I was tickled to death the way she’s caught on to all this and knows how to carry on everything I was doing. Plus, she’s improving a lot of things I was doing.”

Under a Microscope

Aranda admits being a little worried about being scrutinized by the DEA.

“Of course, that would be the natural inclination I think for anyone in my field. It’s a little bit scary to walk in the shoes of a man who is so well known and beloved by everyone and had issues with the DEA I think most people felt were unfounded,” Aranda said.

“I am of course very concerned that they could be looking at me with a microscope. Or a double and triple microscope. But I think they already know our patient population and they now understand that we do have some of the sickest patients in the country. That’s why they come to us from all over. And so, we’re just careful.”

While Tennant operated his clinic basically as a charity, Aranda is “cash only” and will not accept medical insurance.  She is temporarily seeing patients at a clinic in Malibu but is looking for a permanent location.

Like Tennant, Aranda is willing to treat patients from out-of-state, including those who suffer from severe intractable pain. Patients interested in seeing Aranda can reach her at (800) 992-9280.   

DR. FOREST TENNANT

DR. FOREST TENNANT

As for Tennant, he’s not quite ready to retire completely. He plans to continue researching arachnoiditis, a progressive and incurable disease that often begins when the spinal cord is damaged during surgery or punctured by a misplaced needle during an epidural steroid injection.

Inflammation sets in and can spiral out of control, forming scar tissue that cause spinal nerves to stick together. That leads to adhesive arachnoiditis and neurological problems, which can cause burning or stinging pain that can be felt from head to toe.

Arachnoiditis is poorly understood and often misdiagnosed as “failed back syndrome.” Tennant estimates as many as a million Americans may have it. Few doctors are trained to recognize the symptoms or know how to treat it.

“I’m going to be spending my time trying to research and educate on arachanoiditis. I think it’s the biggest, most severe pain problem we have,” says Tennant. “Before I hang up my spurs totally I want to make sure arachnoiditis is known to every family doctor and nurse practitioner in every community in the country.”

Trump Administration Proposes More Rx Opioid Cuts

By Pat Anson, Editor

For the third year in a row, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is proposing another round of cuts in the supply of opioid pain medication – a 10% reduction in manufacturing quotas in 2019 for several widely used opioids.  The Trump Administration says the pain relievers are “frequently misused” and reducing their supply will help prevent addiction and abuse.

The DEA proposal involves six opioids classified as Schedule II controlled substances:  oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, morphine, and fentanyl. Some of the medications are already in short supply, forcing some hospitals to use other pain relievers to treat surgery and trauma patients.

“President Trump has set the ambitious goal of reducing opioid prescription rates by one-third in three years. We embrace that goal and are resolutely committed to reaching it,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “We have already made significant progress in reducing prescription rates over the past year. Cutting opioid production quotas by an average of ten percent next year will help us continue that progress and make it harder to divert these drugs for abuse.”

The DEA has already made substantial cuts in opioid production quotas, reducing them by 25 percent in 2017, followed by another 20 percent cut in 2018.  

The production cuts have had no effect on reducing the nation’s soaring overdose rate. According to a preliminary report released this week by the CDC, over 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 6 percent increase from 2016. The rising death toll is primarily attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine. Overdoses involving prescription opioids appear to have leveled off.

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The DEA’s latest round of production cuts is in line with President Trump’s “Safe Prescribing Plan” which seeks to reduce "the over-prescription of opioids” by cutting nationwide opioid prescription fills by one-third within three years.

“We’ve lost too many lives to the opioid epidemic and families and communities suffer tragic consequences every day,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon. “This significant drop in prescriptions by doctors and DEA’s production quota adjustment will continue to reduce the amount of drugs available for illicit diversion and abuse while ensuring that patients will continue to have access to proper medicine.”

‘Serious Consequences’ for Patients

But legitimate patients are losing access to opioids.  Many hospitals and hospices now face a chronic shortage of three intravenous or injectable opioids --  morphine, hydromorphone and fentanyl -- which are used to treat patients recovering from surgery or trauma. Shortages of these "parenteral" drugs have been primarily blamed on manufacturing problems, although some critics say it has been worsened by the DEA production cuts.

“The shortage has serious consequences for patients and physicians. Parenteral opioids provide fast and reliable analgesia for patients admitted to the hospital with poorly controlled pain, patients who have undergone painful procedures such as major surgery, and those who were previously on oral opioid regimens but are unable to continue treatment by mouth,” Edward Bruera, MD, an oncologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, wrote in an op/ed published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Shortages of the three best-known parenteral opioids may increase the risk for medication errors when it becomes necessary to switch a patient to a less familiar drug or to use opioid-sparing drug combinations. Opioids are already among the drugs most frequently involved in medication errors in hospitals. There are also increased risks of delayed time to analgesia and of side effects resulting in unnecessary patient suffering and delayed hospital discharge.”

Although opioid prescribing guidelines are only intended for physicians treating patients with “chronic non-cancer pain,” Bruera says some cancer patients are being affected by opioid shortages and over-zealous enforcement of prescribing guidelines.

“Most hospitalized patients and almost all patients with cancer need opioids, either on a temporary basis after surgery or painful treatments such as stem-cell transplantation, or longer for cancer-related pain or dyspnea,” he wrote. “It is impossible to appropriately treat such a large number of patients unless most physicians are able and willing to prescribe opioids. There were not enough palliative care and pain specialists to meet patient needs before the shortages began, and universal referral of patients who need parenteral opioids will therefore only result in more undertreated pain.”

The rationale behind the DEA’s production cuts defy some of the agency’s own analysis. Less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted, according to a 2017 DEA report, which also found that admissions for painkiller abuse to publicly funded addiction treatment facilities have declined significantly since 2011, the same year that opioid prescriptions began dropping.

An Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

By Fred Brown, Guest Columnist

Dear Honorable Attorney General Jeff Sessions,

Why are there are so many federal agencies, like the CDC, DEA and Justice Department, that want to take away my opioid medication?  I have a right to be treated humanely, don’t I?

I am an American citizen who has dealt with some serious and painful medical issues. Over 20 years ago, I was referred to a board-certified pain management physician.  This was due to two failed cervical surgeries that left me with chronic back pain. I had two additional surgeries to fuse my spine after the first two operations, which only made my pain even more severe. The pain physician recommended I should begin a treatment regimen that included low doses of opioid medication.  

These medications helped me to continue working and have a certain quality of life.  I knew from discussions with my physician that, over time, I would need to increase the dose as my body would become dependent on opioids. This has been necessary and over many years these medications helped me live my life.

I have tried other medical modalities such as physical and occupational therapy, biofeedback, acupuncture, counseling, and other alternative treatments.  Further, before starting on opioids, I tried various non-narcotic medicines which did not work.    

Mr. Attorney General, earlier this year, you gave a talk in Tampa and said, “People need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.” 

Perhaps if someone was experiencing mild discomfort, aspirin will work.  However, when one is living with severe chronic pain, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, they very likely need strong opioids prescribed by their physician.

Opiates help patients like me get relief from severe pain. They do not take away the pain, but they help reduce it and enable us to have some quality of life.  

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS

The “pill mills” have hurt many people, and most certainly the DEA should do everything it can to close them down.  But at the same time, certain patients must have high dosages of these medications. Each of us have a different metabolism and what may work for one person at one dose level may not work at all with another patient.  

When a government agency such as the DEA goes after physicians who are trying to help legitimate patients, without any idea of the patients’ history is and why they are on high doses, that is entirely wrong and inhumane!

Why are so many agencies, along with Congress, trying to keep these medications at lower dosages that will cause me to live with increased pain?  Does our nation intend to condemn citizens who have painful and excruciating disabilities to a life of agony?

I am aware the CDC made some serious mistakes when it released the 2016 Opioid Prescribing Guideline.  Some physicians believe the guideline is law and began to lower the doses of patients or even discharge them from their practice. It took CDC researchers years to admit they significantly inflated deaths from opioid prescriptions because they misreported deaths due to illegal fentanyl. 

Opioid prescriptions have been declining since 2011, while overdose deaths and suicides are at an all-time high!  This is not accidental.  CDC, FDA and DEA are chasing the wrong opioid epidemic and needlessly ruining lives of people in pain.

Mr. Attorney General, was our nation founded on the premise that our fellow citizens should live in chronic severe pain? I do not believe our Founding Fathers would want this. 

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Fred Brown lives in central Florida. Fred is disabled because of spinal fusion with laminectomy syndrome, cervical radiculitis.  He also has severe arthritis in bilateral knees with a failed knee replacement.  In addition to pain management, Fred uses "diversion of the mind" as a way of dealing with much discomfort. 

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.

DEA Adopts Rule to Further Limit Opioid Production

Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Justice Department has finalized a new rule that will allow the Drug Enforcement Administration to reduce the amount of opioid pain medication a drug maker can produce if it finds the opioid is being diverted or misused.

The controversial change in the opioid production quota system was adopted despite warnings from patients, doctors and drug makers that it targets the wrong the problem and could worsen shortages of some pain medications.

The DEA maintains the rule change will “encourage vigilance” on the part of opioid manufacturers to prevent their drugs from being abused.

“These common-sense actions directly respond to the national opioid epidemic by allowing DEA to use drug diversion as a basis to evaluate whether a drug’s production should be reduced,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon in a statement. “This also opens the door for increased communication and better information sharing between DEA and individual states, as we work together to address the opioid problem plaguing our country.”

The final rule greatly enhances the roles played by states and other federal agencies in setting opioid production quotas. It requires DEA to share proposed quotas with state attorneys general, who could object to a quota and demand a hearing.

The rule also allows DEA to consider “relevant information” from all 50 states, the Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, before setting a quota.

"DEA must make sure that we prevent diversion and abuse of prescription opioids. Today's new rule, by taking diversion of these opioids into account, will allow the DEA to be more responsive to the facts on the ground. More importantly, it will help us stop and even prevent diversion from taking place,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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Sessions announced the proposed rule changes in April, and DEA received over 1,500 public comments during an unusually short comment period. A clear majority opposed the new rule.

“This does nothing to stop addiction or overdose deaths. Addicts will find a high anywhere and where they find it now is street drugs! Illicit drugs are what’s killing, not doctor prescribed opioids filled at a pharmacy. The reporting you all are using is inaccurate and false,” wrote Amy Vallejo.

“By creating quotas, and thereby shortages, you are committing torture,” said Kimberley Comfort, who lives with arachnoiditis, a chronic spinal disease. “There is no reason why people having surgeries, people who suffer from incurable diseases, should be left to suffer when we are a nation that has the ability to take care of its citizens. The DEA does not have a clear understanding of the so-called opioid crisis and therefore needs to cease and desist making opiates harder to get.”

“Again, we have the DEA making laws and quotas on something they should not be. Let them worry about the drugs coming in from China, Mexico etc. which are illegal,” said Sarah Yerxa. “By cutting the quotas all they are doing is sending needy pain patients to the streets, which will just raise the addiction... and overdose problem.”

Opioid Shortages

The DEA has already made substantial cuts in opioid production quotas, reducing them by 25 percent in 2017, followed by another 20 percent cut in 2018. This year’s cuts were ordered despite warnings from drug makers that reduced supplies of opioids “were insufficient to provide for the estimated medical, scientific, research and industrial needs of the United States.”

Many hospitals and hospices now face a chronic shortage of intravenous and injectable opioids, which are used to treat patients recovering from surgery or trauma. The shortage has been primarily blamed on manufacturing problems, although some critics say it has been worsened by the DEA production cuts.

“I believe Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs to sit down and talk to some of these physicians who are pain specialists and understand that what he’s doing is going to put the chronic pain patient, the post-operative patient, and the patient that comes to the emergency room in serious jeopardy,” Tony Mack, CEO and chairman of Virpax Pharmaceuticals, told PNN in an earlier interview.

“I think that Jeff Sessions is not educated well. I think he is picking on something that sounds good politically but doesn’t make sense socially. It’s socially irresponsible.”

In a public notice announcing the rule change, the DEA said it was not responsible for “perceived shortages” of injectable drugs and blamed the “manufacturer induced shortages” on “internal business decisions.”

The agency also deflected criticism that it was targeting the wrong problem. Recent studies indicate that overdoses involving illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs now outnumber deaths linked to prescription opioids.   

“The DEA acknowledges that prescriptions for opioid drug products have decreased over the last several years due to the stepped up civil, criminal, and regulatory enforcement efforts of the agency. However, while there is a downward trend in prescribing, these Schedule II prescription opiates continue to have a high potential for abuse and dependence and require the annual assessment of quotas,” the DEA said.

The agency also claimed prescription opioids were “inextricably linked” to overdoses from heroin and illicit fentanyl, because many addicts start by taking pain medication from family medicine cabinets and then move on to street drugs.

The DEA statement defies some of its own analysis. Less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted, according to a 2017 DEA report, which also found that admissions for painkiller abuse to publicly funded addiction treatment facilities have declined significantly since 2011, the same year that opioid prescriptions began dropping.

I’m Ashamed of the U.S. Justice Department

By Drew Pavilonis, Guest Columnist

I was a federal law enforcement officer with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for 14 years. Hard work, a willingness to transfer, and a graduate degree brought fast promotions and a coveted position in management at a DOJ training academy just outside of Denver.

However, a rare type of brain tumor deep in the thalamus brought everything to a sudden halt after ten years in Denver. My doctors initially said the brain tumor was inoperable due to its sensitive location, but the tumor continued to grow, and I eventually flew to Phoenix to have a talented neurosurgeon perform the difficult surgery to remove it.

The thalamus and brainstem proved to be a very challenging surgery and I suffered permanent disability because of it. I spent several months as an inpatient at a neuro-rehabilitation hospital, relearning how to walk and speak, dress and bath myself.

The DOJ medically retired me because cripples can't be law enforcement officers. Fortunately, I had 19 years of federal service and was able to retire with a pension, which was a good thing since I was not able to work due to my significant disability. 

However, the suffering didn’t end there. I developed chronic, debilitating pain 3 years after the surgery.

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Fortunately, at the urging of my sister, I had moved close to Duke University Hospital in North Carolina for follow up medical care. The doctors at Duke hypothesized that my pain was due to scar tissue that formed in my thalamus after the brain surgery. The thalamus is the brain's pain center and my pain “switch” had been permanently turned on.

I was bedridden and prayed for death daily. The pain was so bad that I could not walk. I was taken by ambulance to Duke Hospital for a one week stay as an inpatient and was medically tested to the extreme. Eventually, the doctors determined that I had real pain and referred me to pain management. 

I was prescribed methadone, four times a day. Additionally, to fight the debilitating nerve pain that I also have, I was put on the maximum dose of gabapentin. The medications just allow me to live, much like diabetics need insulin to survive. I am always in pain, but the medications control it to a tolerable level.

I am able to travel internationally (I write this from my hotel room in Berlin, Germany), do volunteer work, and ride an outdoor wheelchair. However, I worry that that I will someday become collateral damage in this “war on opioids.”

I cringe every time I see a journalist cite the CDC report about opioid related deaths in America. That report was full of errors and incorrect by the CDC's own admission. Also concerning are the jack-booted tactics of the DEA, which attacks legitimate pain treatment as if doctors were responsible for all the heroin in the country.

Those rogue tactics have had a chilling effect on the practice of pain management and contributed to a growing number of patient suicides. Many chronic pain patients have taken their own lives because they could not get the appropriate medication that they so desperately need to live.

I never thought I would see human rights violations conducted by my own government against fellow Americans. It is unbelievable.  I no longer tell people that I am retired from the DOJ because I am ashamed of it. I just say that I’m retired from the federal government. That's sad.

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Drew Pavilonis lives in North Carolina.

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.

Hydrocodone Rescheduling Fueled Online Drug Sales

By Pat Anson, Editor

Hydrocodone was once the most widely prescribed and one of the most abused drugs in the United States. Over 135 million prescriptions were filled in 2012 for hydrocodone combination products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.

Then in 2014 the Drug Enforcement Administration rescheduled the opioid painkiller from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II. The move was intended to reduce the prescribing of hydrocodone – and it quickly had the desired effect.  By 2017, only 81 million prescriptions for hydrocodone were filled.  

But while legal prescriptions for hydrocodone have gone down, the DEA’s 2014 rescheduling may have fueled a surge in illegal online sales of hydrocodone and other opioids, according to a new study in the British Medical Journal.    

“The scheduling change in hydrocodone combination products coincided with a statistically significant, sustained increase in illicit trading of opioids through online US cryptomarkets. These changes were not observed for other drug groups or in other countries,” wrote lead author Jack Cunliffe, PhD, a lecturer in data analysis and criminology at the University of Kent.

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Cunliffe and his colleagues studied these online cryptomarkets – also known as the “dark web” – by using web crawling software that scans the internet looking for websites dedicated to online sales of illicit drugs. From October 2013 to July 2016, they found that sales of prescription opioids on the dark web nearly doubled, from 6.7% to 13.7% of all online drug sales.  

“Our results are consistent with the possibility that the schedule change might have directly contributed to the changes we observed in the supply of illicit opioids,” said Cunliffe. “One explanation is that cryptomarket vendors perceived an increase in demand and responded by placing more listings for prescription opioids and thereby increasing supply.”

‘Iron Law of Prohibition’

The increase in supply and demand wasn’t just for hydrocodone. The researchers also noted a growing number of online listings for more potent opioids, such as oxycodone and fentanyl. They attribute that to the “iron law of prohibition” – banning or reducing the supply of one drug encourages users to seek more potent drugs from new sources.

“We found that users were first buying oxycodone followed by fentanyl. Drug users adapt to their changing environment and are able to source drugs from new distribution channels if needed, even if that means by illegal means. In a context of high demand, supply side interventions are therefore likely to push opioid users towards illicit supplies, which may increase the harms associated with their drug use and make monitoring more difficult,” Cunliffe wrote.

As PNN has reported, business is booming for illegal online pharmacies. As many as 35,000 are in operation worldwide and about 20 new ones are launched every day. About half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other medications. Overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids – most of them purchased on the black market – have also increased and now outnumber those linked to prescription opioids.

"The study’s findings are troubling but not surprising. As you’ve well reported, there are often unexpected and negative externalities resulting from well-intended anti-addiction interventions," Libby Baney, Principal, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting and senior advisor to Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies said in an email to PNN. 

"What’s worse still, when buying medicine online - whether from dark or surface web sellers - it is virtually impossible for the consumer to know if the product is what it claims (in this case, an opioid like oxycodone) or is a dangerous counterfeit laced with a deadly dose of elephant tranquilizer or poison. As too many victims have shown, even one pill can kill."

A recent study at the University of Texas Medical Branch also found an association between hydrocodone's rescheduling and increased opioid abuse.  Researchers found that hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare patients declined after rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalizations increased significantly for elderly patients who did not have a prescription for opioids.

A Pained Life: An Open Letter to President Trump

By Carol Levy, Columnist

Dear Mr. President Trump,

I have had trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, since 1976. For the last 30 years, I’ve been able to get all of the pain medications my doctors prescribed for me, including codeine, Demerol, morphine, Percodan, hydrocodone, and even an 8-ounce bottle of tincture of opium.

For the latter, I only had to go to 2 pharmacies. The first one didn’t carry it. The second store gave me the bottle with no questions asked.   I was trusted. My doctor was trusted. My doctor trusted me.

Many of us are now losing our doctors, who are fearful of being raided or arrested by the DEA because they prescribe opioids. Pain sufferers who were once able to get out of bed in the morning to work, watch their kids, and be a part of the world are joining the ranks of the disabled because opioids are being reduced or withdrawn completely.

Often patients get little or no warning when their pain management doctors decide they can no longer treat them.  Many doctors have closed their doors or decided not to prescribe opioids, no matter what the patient's condition or if they benefited from them. Often there is no rhyme or reason for this abandonment, other than fear of the DEA.

The Justice Department, CDC, VA and other federal agencies continue blaming patients and physicians for the opioid crisis, when the true “epidemic” involves illicit fentanyl and heroin. It has little to do with prescriptions.

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This blaming of patients and pain management physicians has caused untold additional suffering.  The worst part is the many anecdotal stories of patients committing suicide because the opioids that were helping them are no longer available in the same dosage, if at all.

The damage is not just physical from the increased pain, there is psychological pain as well.  Sources that once may have been a comfort become accusers.

Patients tell story after story: “My family now calls me an addict because I am on opioids.”

Or they fear letting their friends know they take opioids for pain: “Then they’ll think I am an abuser or an addict.”

Yes, some doctors overprescribe and some patients abuse their opioids.  But they’re a small number. We don't sell our prescriptions and we don't give them away like candy.  We take them because they help our pain.  Often, it is the only treatment or option left to us.  We would be fools to give away, sell or abuse that which is helping. 

It is time, past time, for the "compassionate conservatism" of the Republican party be put into use. And Democrats need to show that the compassion they talk about is real.

We have enough trouble dealing with our physical pain. Please stop making it worse by taking away our medications. Let our doctors doctor us, not the government.

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

The Grim Future of the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The opioid crisis continues to be misunderstood. In a speech last week in Tennessee, President Trump said the nation was making progress “getting rid of the scourge that’s taking over our country.”

“The (opioid prescription) numbers are way down. We’re getting the word out — bad. Bad stuff. You go to the hospital, you have a broken arm, you come out, you’re a drug addict with this crap. It’s way down. We’re doing a good job with it,” Trump said.

Indeed, prescription opioid levels are falling. In that sense, and only that sense, the numbers are down. But addiction stemming from medical treatment was never a significant factor in the crisis to begin with. A new review from the British Journal of Anesthesiology found that opioid dependence or abuse occurs in less than 5 percent of patients prescribed opioids for pain.

By most other measures, the opioid crisis is rapidly getting worse. The number of people addicted to heroin is rising, the number of ER admissions for overdoses is increasing, and the number of fatal overdoses from all drugs -- legal and illegal --  has skyrocketed to nearly 64,000 a year.

Drug deaths linked to illicit fentanyl and heroin now outnumber those from prescription opioids, as do overdoses involving medications used to treat depression and anxiety.

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The CDC, DEA and FDA increasingly recognize that illegal drugs, including diverted prescription opioids, are the key features of the current crisis. But stopping this flow has become a nightmarish challenge.

The significance of illicit fentanyl in the crisis cannot be underestimated. Fentanyl is spreading throughout the black market as an adulterant or ingredient in counterfeit pills, cocaine, heroin and other illicit substances. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates there are 15 to 30 different fentanyl analogues circulating in the drug supply. Fentanyl is so potent it is usually shipped in such minute amounts that detecting them in vehicles, the mail, or FedEx and UPS shipments is close to impossible.

Online drug markets serve as middlemen who find customers for illicit manufacturers in China and distributors in Mexico and Canada. No cartels, street corner dealers, or vats of drugs being snuck across borders. Just high-speed Internet connections and cryptocurrencies. 

“This is what makes the opioid crisis so unique and dangerous,” Peter Vincent, who led international operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Obama administration, told The New York Times. “Traditionally, law enforcement has focused on large quantities of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. But very small amounts of opioids can bring tremendous profits.”

In other words, we are fast approaching a point at which supply-side interventions will be virtually pointless. Back in the 19th century, we could control the supply of morphine. In the 20th century, we could, to some extent, control the supply of heroin. But in the 21st century, we can’t do the same for fentanyl and its chemical cousins.

Even if borders and ports are secured, fentanyl can be manufactured inside the U.S. And if the Postal Service and commercial couriers like FedEx are closely monitored and inspected, private networks and ad hoc distribution systems -- the modern equivalent of old bootlegging operations -- can move drugs around the country with ease.

Thus, a bill that would impose a national 3-day limit on opioid prescriptions for acute pain, as proposed by Sen. Robert Portman (R-Ohio), is off target. And efforts to combat the opioid crisis by using aromatherapy in ambulances are naive at best.

Instead, drug addiction treatment in the form of medication assisted therapy (MAT) needs to be available everywhere. Medications like methadone have existed for decades, but as David Courtwright notes in his book “Dark Paradise” on the history of opioids in America, methadone "never emerged as a coherent national response to heroin addiction.”

The national response is still not coherent. There is little interest in developing an infrastructure to treat people with substance use disorders or programs to reduce the risks of addiction. Instead we see a continuing, misguided focus on prescription opioids as both the cause and solution. Until that changes, the future of the crisis remains grim.

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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.

FDA Uncovers Errors in Opioid Database

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has identified potentially serious errors in a database of opioid sales maintained by IQVIA - a private company that provides data to the federal government on the volume of drugs sold by manufacturers and wholesalers to pharmacies and hospitals.

The FDA said the errors “raise serious questions” about the reliability of IQVIA’s database, which is used by the Drug Enforcement Administration to set opioid production quotas for drug makers. In the last two years, the DEA has reduced opioid production quotas by as much as 45 percent, claiming there was less demand for opioids and that the market was oversupplied with them.

“When we discover irregularities or inconsistencies in the data we use, we take such deficiencies very seriously,” the FDA said in a statement. "The FDA uses these data to assist the DEA in determining the medical and research needs for Schedule I and II controlled substances in the U.S. for the upcoming year."

The FDA believes the error was caused when IQVIA incorrectly converted into kilograms the amount of prescription fentanyl contained in transdermal skin patches and other fentanyl products. As a result, FDA researchers believe the company overestimated the amount of fentanyl sold in the U.S. in the last five years by over 20 percent.

“This error caused IQVIA to overestimate the total amount of fentanyl distributed into the marketplace,” the FDA said. “As a result of this work, we identified additional data quality issues related to several other controlled substances with similar weight-based conversion factors, including oxymorphone and hydrocodone. These additional errors raise serious concerns about systemic issues with IQVIA’s data and quality control procedures.”

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Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that is used to treat severe chronic pain and acute pain in patients recovering from surgery and trauma. There is currently a nationwide shortage of intravenous fentanyl and other opioids that has forced some hospitals to postpone surgeries or use other pain medications that are less effective.   

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, called on IQVIA to immediately hire an independent, third party auditor to conduct a review of its database. Gottlieb said he would brief members of Congress about the data issues and their potential impact on public health.

IQVIA was formed in 2016 after the merger of IMS Health and Quintiles, two prominent healthcare research firms. The company released a statement saying it identified the problems in its opioid database last month and notified customers.  

“Recently, we made a correction to a kilogram conversion measurement in the United States IQVIA National Sales Perspective (NSP) market research service affecting reported measurements for transdermal patches in the opioid market,” the company said. “IQVIA’s internal processes had already identified the measurement conversion issue prior to the FDA’s notification. We notified our clients about this measurement conversion issue in April of this year. Ongoing steps have been undertaken to correct this measurement conversion issue.

“We stand behind our data methodologies. We value our long-standing relationship with the FDA. We take the FDA’s concerns seriously and will continue working with the FDA to resolve these concerns to its satisfaction.”

If confirmed, the database errors would be the second admission by federal agencies this year that their analysis of opioid prescriptions relied on faulty data. In March, four researchers in the CDC’s ironically named Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention acknowledged that many overdoses involving illicit fentanyl and other synthetic black market opioids were erroneously counted as prescription drug deaths.