Did Chronic Pain Patients Help Elect President Trump?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Rates of opioid prescribing were significantly higher in counties that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, according to a new analysis published in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers at the University of Texas compared voting trends, census information and Medicare data for people who received opioid prescriptions for 90 days or more. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. counties that voted for Trump had an above average opioid prescribing rate in 2015. Counties with below average prescribing rates voted for Trump only 39 percent of the time.

The researchers cautioned that the study does not mean that chronic pain patients were more likely to vote for Trump. It’s more likely to indicate that economic, health and social problems that lead to opioid use – sometimes called the "epidemic of despair" -- played a role in Trump’s victory.

“Support for the Republican candidate in the 2016 election is a marker for physical conditions, economic circumstances, and cultural forces associated with opioid use,” wrote lead author Dr. James Goodwin, chair of geriatric medicine at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston. “This association is related to underlying county socioeconomic characteristics that are common to both chronic opioid use and voting patterns, particularly characteristics pertaining to income, disability, insurance coverage, and unemployment.”

2016 vote.png

The researchers created a map (above) showing counties with the highest rates of opioid prescribing in dark red, while a second map (below) shows counties that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in dark red. 

The maps have similarities, but they don’t align perfectly or prove a cause and effect relationship between prescribing and voting. For example, while Trump won unexpected victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where opioid prescribing is high, he also won in North and South Dakota, where prescribing rates are relatively low. 

2016 vote1.png

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump and Hillary Clinton both called for further restrictions on opioid prescriptions and expanded access to addiction treatment. Clinton also endorsed a proposed tax on opioid pain medication.

“Given that both candidates focused on opiate addiction as a major campaign issue, it is difficult to infer that opiate prescription rates are somehow linked with voting behavior based on the candidates’ respective campaign promises and/or platforms,” wrote James Rosenquist, MD, in an editorial also published in JAMA Open Network.

“These limitations aside, this article’s findings add to a growing body of literature showing the interrelationship between public health and society, including the all-important economic and political realms.”

The “epidemic of despair” was first documented by Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton in 2015.  They believe that the reduced life expectancy of middle-aged white Americans is linked to substance abuse, unemployment, poor finances, lack of education, divorce, depression and loss of social connections.

"People who reach for an opioid might also reach for ... near-term fixes," Nancy Morden, PhD, a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, told NPR. "I think that Donald Trump's campaign was a promise for near-term relief."

Trump and Clinton Pursue Same Policies in Pain Care

By Pat Anson, Editor

Chronic pain patients hoping for a dramatic change in federal pain care policies as a result of the presidential election are likely to be disappointed.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton favor more restrictions on opioid prescribing, as well as expanded access to addiction treatment programs, which are essentially the same policies being pursued by the Obama administration.

At a rally in New Hampshire this weekend, Trump outlined for the first time his strategy to combat the nation’s so-called opioid epidemic.

“DEA should reduce the amount of Schedule II opioids -- drugs like oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl -- that can be made and sold in the U.S. We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but use 80 percent of the prescription opioids,” Trump said in prepared remarks.

“I would also restore accountability to our Veterans Administration. Too many of our brave veterans have been prescribed these dangerous and addictive drugs by a VA that should have been paying them better attention.”

Trump said the Food and Drug Administration has been “too slow” in approving opioid pain medication with abuse deterrent formulas. And he said he would “lift the cap” on the number of patients that a doctor can treat with addiction treatment drugs.

donald trump

donald trump

But the Republican nominee seemed confused about the difference between abuse deterrent formulas and addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine (Suboxone).

"The FDA has been far too slow to approve abuse-deterring drugs. And when the FDA has approved these medications, the rules have been far too restrictive, severely limiting the number of authorized prescribers as well as the number of patients each doctor can treat," he said.

There are no limits on doctors for prescribing abuse deterrent drugs, but there are for the buprenorphine. In August, the Obama administration nearly tripled the number of patients that a doctor can treat with buprenorphine.

Trump also seemed unaware that the DEA recently said it would reduce the production quota for many opioids by 25 percent or more.

Trump claimed the Obama administration has worsened the nation’s drug problem by commuting the sentences of drug traffickers and by releasing “tens of thousands” of drug dealers early from prison. He also pledged to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country.

“We will close the shipping loopholes that China and others are exploiting to send dangerous drugs across our borders in the hands of our own postal service. These traffickers use loopholes in the Postal Service to mail fentanyl and other drugs to users and dealers in the U.S.” said Trump.

“When I won the New Hampshire primary, I promised the people of New Hampshire that I would stop drugs from pouring into your communities. I am now doubling-down on that promise, and can guarantee you – we will not only stop the drugs from pouring in, but we will help all of those people so seriously addicted get the assistance they need to unchain themselves.”

Like Trump, Hillary Clinton has also promised to expand access to addiction treatment, but in more detail. Her Initiative to Combat America's Deadly Epidemic of Drug and Alcohol Addiction would allocate $10 billion in block grants to states to help fund substance abuse programs.  

Clinton also wants doctors to undergo training in opioid prescribing before they are licensed to practice and to require that they consult prescription drug databases before writing prescriptions for controlled substances.

One area where Clinton differs with Trump is that she puts less emphasis on law enforcement. Saying she wants to “end the era of mass incarceration,” Clinton has called for low-level drug offenders to get treatment and not just be locked up.

“For those who commit low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, I will reorient our federal criminal justice resources away from more incarceration and toward treatment and rehabilitation. Many states are already charting this course — I will challenge the rest to do the same,” Clinton wrote in an op/ed published in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

hillary clinton

hillary clinton

In their public statements, neither Trump or Clinton have given any indication that they believe that  federal policies affecting pain care, such as the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines, have gone too far. If anything, they want to go further.

Clinton has endorsed a proposed tax on opioid pain medication sponsored by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D). If approved, the so-called Lifeboat Act would raise $2 billion annually to fund addiction treatment programs. The tax would be the first federal tax on a prescription drug ever levied on consumers.  

During a roundtable discussion about opioid overdoses in West Virginia, Clinton called the tax “a great idea” and said it was “one of the reasons why I am such an admirer of Sen. Manchin.”

Pain News Network has asked the Trump campaign where the Republican nominee stood on the opioid tax. We have yet to get a response.

Hillary Clinton: Please Be Responsible for Opioids

By Lynn R. Webster, MD

While Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton only recently announced her bid for office in 2016, she has already declared a few important issues on her presidential agenda, including the ever-important opioid crisis in the United States.

Many are chiming in to offer their best solutions to curbing the opioid abuse epidemic; sadly, many of the proposed solutions fail to promote and fund safer alternative therapies for people suffering from chronic pain who rely on opioids to live a semblance of a normal life.

I applaud Clinton’s desire to work toward a safer, opioid-free world. It’s a goal we should all aspire to. In order to realize it, however, we must not forget those people who rely on opioids to get through the day in the absence of alternative treatments.

Here is what Hillary Clinton must consider as she seeks to curb opioid abuse:

Redefine the prescription opioid problem as the chronic pain problem

Prescription opioids have garnered a great deal of attention for the possible health risks involved in taking the drug. While it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of bad press, it is still important to remember why opioids are such a prominent treatment form in the first place.

More than 100 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, meaning a third of the entire country may rely on some form of medication to make their lives better. Pain ranges in severity, with many suffering from severe pain that makes it difficult to live a normal life.

While no medical professional advocates that opioids should be the first line of defense, in some cases, they happen to be the only thing that works for a patient. Trying to end opioid abuse without addressing the needs of those who rely on the drug may make the problem of chronic pain worse.

Understand why prescription opioids have risen in popularity

In 2007, Americans spent $34 billion in out of pocket expenses to cover the cost of alternative forms chronic pain treatment.  To be clear, opioids are not the only means of treating chronic pain. Alternative therapies exist, but are woefully underfunded by payers. As a result, many patients with severe chronic pain, those who struggle to get out of bed, who sometimes lose their jobs, must rely only on what their insurance covers – in most cases, that form of treatment is opioids.

The chronic pain community needs access to safer alternative therapies. We need to invest in research to bring even more alternative therapies to the market, and crucially, insurance companies must then cover those alternative forms of care.

In 2012 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent only about 400 million dollars on chronic pain conditions but more than 2.5 billion dollars was spent on drug and other substance research.  We certainly need to find safer and more effective therapies for addiction but some of the current cost associated with substance abuse it due to the limited options to treat the number one public health problem in America: pain.

Stop stigmatizing patients who currently rely on opioids

Alternative forms of medication that could potentially help chronic pain patients and decrease the demand for opioids remain underfunded and under-researched. Despite being one of the largest health researchers and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the NIH continues to operate on a shoestring budget.

Despite the lack of options for alternative therapies for chronic pain, the topic of opioid abuse has become a popular topic in the media, and sadly, caused an increase in stigmatization of patients who use opioids for pain management. Patients have reported reluctant doctors and pharmacists unwilling to prescribe necessary medications.

The DEA has rescheduled hydrocodone as a Schedule II drug, leading to a series of unintended consequences with which patients today are left to suffer. Many patients report feeling like drug addicts for simply trying to fill their legally obtained prescriptions.

Require all opioids to be abuse-deterrent

Abuse deterrent formulations (ADF) have been shown to curb some forms of opioid abuse, while maintaining the benefits for patients that need the drug.  Unfortunately payers have priced these safer formulations so that there is little incentive for market adoption.  HHS should lead the way and negotiate deals with manufactures to make ADFs no more expensive than generic alternatives to patients.

Remove methadone as a “preferred” drug

While the use of methadone as an analgesic for chronic pain has expanded in recent years, it shows up in mortality reports with a higher frequency than other opioids. Despite the evident risk associated with this drug, many states have listed it as a “preferred” analgesic in treating severe chronic pain, largely due to its low cost and savings for publicly funded health plans.

The American Academy of Pain Medicine holds that methadone should not be a preferred drug unless special education is provided, and that it should never be the first choice in treating chronic pain.

The opioid crisis is not a black and white issue. Until we stop treating it as such, we will not be able to tackle the problem at its root. Eliminating opioids does not alleviate the problem, end patient suffering or acknowledge what the true issue is. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain, but very few have access to multiple options to manage their pain.

Through an increase in funding and research of alternative therapies, implementation of ADF’s and greater coverage by payers, we can finally begin to treat the opioid epidemic in a safe and responsible way – a way that does not hurt the millions of Americans who rely on opioids to get out of bed, to play with their children, to get through the day.

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is Past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences. He is a Pain Medicine News editorial board member and author of a forthcoming book, “The Painful Truth.” He lives in Salt Lake City. Follow him on Twitter @LynnRWebsterMD, Facebook and LinkedIn.

This column is republished with permission from Dr. Webster’s blog.

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.