Critics Pan Medicare Plan to Reduce High Dose Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over 1,200 people have left public comments in the Federal Register about changes to Medicare's Part D prescription drug plan, most of them sharply critical of rules that would make it harder for Medicare patients to obtain high doses of opioid pain medication.

Under the proposed regulations for 2019, a ceiling for opioid doses would be set at 90mg morphine equivalent units (MME) for all Medicare beneficiaries.  Any prescription at or above that level would trigger a “hard edit” rule requiring pharmacists to talk with the insurer and doctor about the appropriateness of the dose – with the insurer being the final arbiter in deciding who gets the higher dose.  

If adopted, critics say the rule would force many high-dose opioid patients to be abruptly tapered to lower doses, causing severe pain and withdrawal symptoms -- and possibly leading to illegal drug use and suicide.

“Suddenly dropping opioid doses will cause acute opioid withdrawal, exacerbation of pain, and increased disability with decreased productivity. It also increases the risk that patients will migrate to riskier alternatives such as heroin or fentanyl,” wrote David Kan, MD, an addiction psychiatrist.

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“The proposed rule change is in the right spirit but very, very risky in reality. I urge CMS to reconsider the arbitrary dose limit on opioids. The unintended consequences are potentially devastating to our patients and community.”

“This is archaic medicine and does more harm than one can imagine,” wrote pain patient Henry Yennie. “The DEA, HHS, private insurers, and now CMS are pursuing policies and restrictions that will cause harm and suffering to millions of people... You are complicit in the pain, suffering, and documented damage that will result.”

“I cannot understand how Medicare can be so uncaring about the pain people have,” wrote Mikal Casalino, a 72-year old pain patient. “Limiting the dosage to an arbitrary amount is not going to be helpful for individuals. Each person who needs medication deserves the best care possible, and that will depend on both condition and need.”

“I think it is absolutely ludicrous to imagine that a third party could presume to place a maximum daily or monthly limit on my, or any other chronic pain patient's, medication. Each person's tolerance for and requirement of medication varies tremendously. How could you possibly imagine that you could come up with a generic formula which could fit every chronic pain patient across the board?” wrote Cyrynda Walker.

A joint letter opposing the rule change was submitted by 180 doctors and academics, including some who assisted in drafting the CDC’s controversial 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines. The letter points out that a 48 percent reduction in high dose prescribing since 2010 has not reduced the number of opioid overdoses. And it faults CMS for being focused on reducing high dose prescriptions – not the quality of patient care.

“The proposal does not consider adverse impacts on pharmacies, physicians or patients in the context of multiple regulatory initiatives, and it will accelerate patient abandonment,” the letter warns. “The plan avows no metric for success other than reducing certain measures of prescribing. Neither patient access to care nor patient health outcomes are mentioned.”

The public comment period on the CMS proposal ended March 5. To see the comments that were posted, click here.

CMS Seeking ‘Dialogue’ About Opioids

According to CMS, 1.6 million Medicare beneficiaries met or exceeded opioid doses of 90mg MME for at least one day in 2016. Medicare officials said the goal of the “hard edit” rule is to get pharmacists, doctors and insurers to “engage in a dialogue” about the risks associated with high dose opioid prescriptions.

"We are proposing important new actions to reduce seniors' risk of being addicted to or overdoing it on opioids while still having access to important treatment options," said CMS deputy administrator Demetrios Kouzoukas in announcing the rule changes last month. “We believe these actions will reduce the oversupply of opioids in our communities."

To reduce the risk of “unintended consequences” from the hard edit rule, CMS would allow high dose patients to receive a temporary 7-day supply of opioids while they seek an exception to the 90mg MME rule. If approved, patients would then need to get a new prescription from their doctor. The 7-day supply would only be granted once.

Under the proposed rules, CMS would also create a new 7-day limit for initial prescriptions of opioids for acute, short-term pain. CMS would also start monitoring “high risk beneficiaries” who are prescribed opioids and “potentiator” drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica). Recent research has shown that combining the medications increases the risk of overdose.

CMS contracts with dozens of insurance companies to provide health coverage to about 54 million Americans through Medicare and nearly 70 million in Medicaid. CMS policy changes often have a sweeping impact throughout the U.S. healthcare system because so many insurers and patients are involved.

Unless changes are made, the proposed Medicare Part D rules for 2019 will be finalized April 2.

Tell Medicare to Stop Its War on Pain Patients

By Richard A. Lawhern, Guest Columnist

In March 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a deeply biased and scientifically unsupported guideline for the prescription of opioid pain relievers.  Congress made this “guideline” mandatory in the Department of Veterans Affairs three months before it was even published.  The VA has since enacted practice guidelines that effectively eliminate opioids as a treatment option for many veterans. 

Now the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are doubling down on this bureaucratic atrocity.

CMS has posted in the Federal Register and is inviting public comment on its plans to change the rules for Medicare Part D prescription drug plans in 2019.  

They propose that "all sponsors [are] to implement hard formulary-level cumulative opioid safety edits at point-of-sale (POS) at the pharmacy (which can only be overridden by the sponsor) at 90 morphine milligram equivalent (MME)" – which is the dose ceiling recommended by the CDC.

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The so-called “sponsors” are insurance companies that provide health care coverage funded by taxpayers to 54 million Medicare beneficiaries. If implemented, this proposal will effectively deny reliable pain treatment to millions of seniors, poor and disabled people.  When applied to private health insurance and Medicaid as they inevitably will be, these regulations will damage all U.S. citizens.

As I have commented to CMS, their proposals “mandate a dangerous, unfounded and medically unethical intrusion into medical practice by third parties operating without face to face knowledge of the patient. These … changes will damage and deny care to large numbers of the 1.6 million patients whom CMS estimates are presently treated with opioids above 90 morphine milligram equivalent dose per day.”   

Few pain patients ever display diagnostic symptoms of opioid use disorder. Yet drug-related overdoses have risen steadily in the past ten years -- despite restrictions on the medical supply of opioids -- a death toll largely associated with illegal opioids and nonprescription drugs. Managed medical exposure to opioids contributes almost nothing to the widely hyped “opioid crisis.”


Over-regulation of prescribing is already harming hundreds of thousands of stable patients coerced into opioid doses below therapeutic levels.  Mandated VA restrictions on opioid prescribing are directly responsible for hundreds of deaths among veterans. 

All for nothing.  And CMS is about to do more of the same.

A major study in the British Medical Journal illustrates the foolishness of the CMS proposal.  Diagnoses of opioid abuse disorder were tracked for 565,000 opioid-naïve post-surgical patients between 2008 and 2016. Only 0.6% were later diagnosed with Opioid Abuse Disorder (OAD).  Less than 1% renewed their prescriptions up to 13 weeks.  OAD incidence was only weakly sensitive to dose level from less than 20 to over 120  MME  per day.   

Another large study in JAMA Internal Medicine shows the incidence of extended post-surgical opioid prescriptions at just 0.174% to 0.9%, depending on the type of surgery.

CMS is trying to “solve” a non-problem by means guaranteed to create far worse problems.

The CDC Guidelines ignored the natural variability in liver enzymes governing the way opioids are broken down in the body.  Imposing hard limits on MME in “safety” audits will cause therapy failure in hundreds of thousands of patients who can benefit from opioids, but only at significantly higher doses than entertained by CDC and CMS. 

In January 2018 public hearings before the FDA Opioid Policy Steering Committee, the American Academy of Pain Management recommended against hard limits on opioid analgesics.  Other speakers advocated for leaving practice standards to medical professional associations which guide doctors in each specialty.  CMS has ignored both recommendations.

Forcing pain patients to go through an “exceptions” process before extending prescriptions beyond seven days is inappropriate and dangerous nonsense.  Prevailing practice allows for prescription duration sufficient to treat anticipated pain levels.  The alternative is to drown doctors in useless paperwork and to prompt patients to defer needed surgery because they fear being left without pain control.

There is no one-size-fits-all patient or treatment plan.  CMS should stand down from attempting to force restrictions on medical practice which have such predictable and horrid consequences.  

What Can Patients and Caregivers Do?

First, you can register your protest and concern with CMS before March 6th by selecting the “Comment Now!” buttons at this link.

You don’t have to be a doctor or researcher to do this.  Here are some examples of comments you might make.  Please edit them to fit your own situation.  Don’t copy these words exactly, as CMS will delete them.

    A. I am a chronic pain patient with ___________ (one or more diagnoses)

    B. My medical care will be greatly damaged by your regulation.

    C. I rely upon opioid medications to: (fill in)

  • Preserve my way of life            
  • Manage my incurable pain
  • Allow for increased function
  • Remain productive

     D. If CMS enforces a hard limit for opioid doses per day, this will give private insurance companies and pharmacies  an excuse to stop paying for my necessary prescriptions or dispensing them at all. 

     E. The proposed regulations are unsupported by any reliable science

     F. If enacted, these policies will: 

  • Force even more doctors away from treating pain          
  • Force more patients onto disability
  • Create more demand for emergency room services
  • Increase the rate of expensive and often ineffective surgical procedures
  • Increase the rate of suicides

To review the comment process, feel free to visit the Facebook page for the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP).

The second thing you can do is look up the Washington DC phone numbers of your House and Senate representatives. It’s easy. Just Google your state and the word “senators” or “Congress.”

Then call their office.  Tell the staffer who picks up that “I’m a pain patient and I vote in (name the state).  I want the Senator (Congressman or -woman) to tell the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to withdraw their proposed regulation limiting the treatments I can receive.  If accepted, these regulations will destroy my life.”

It is time for people in pain and caregivers to speak up.  If we do not, then we will live – or die – as victims of a medical bureaucracy that doesn’t care about the damage it does to us.


Richard A Lawhern, PhD, is the co-founder and corresponding secretary for the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). He is a technically trained non-physician patient advocate with over 20 years experience in direct support to patients and caregivers in social media.  His work on public policy for pain management is widely published in multiple online and print media.

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.