Record Decline in Opioid Prescriptions

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Often lost in the debate over opioid medication is that prescriptions for the drugs have been falling for years — a trend that appears to be accelerating. The volume of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. last year fell 17 percent, the largest annual decline ever recorded, according to a new study by the health analytics firm IQVIA. Opioid prescriptions have dropped 43% since their peak in 2011.

“Decreases in prescription opioid volume have been driven by changes in clinical use, regulatory and reimbursement policies and legislation, all of which have increasingly restricted prescription opioid use since 2012,” the report found.

The biggest drop was in high dose opioid prescriptions of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) or more, which account for 43% of the decline. Low dose prescriptions of 20 MME or less have remained relatively stable, falling just 4 percent.

While opioid prescriptions have fallen significantly, addiction and overdose rates continue to soar, fueled in large part by illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market opioids.

“We saw many more people receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. Our research shows new therapy starts for MATs increased to 1.2 million people in 2018, nearly a 300 percent increase compared with those seeking addiction help in 2014,” said Murray Aitken, IQVIA senior vice president.

“This is an important indicator of the effects of increased funding and support for treatment programs to address addiction.”

A recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates the federal government spent nearly $11 billion since 2017 subsidizing the addiction treatment industry, much of it spent on MAT drugs such as buprenorphine (Suboxone).

Drug maker Indivior recently reported the buprenorphine market had double digit growth in the first quarter of 2019, and that “growth continues to be driven primarily by Government channels.”

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Hydrocodone Prescriptions Drop

For the 7th consecutive year, prescriptions fell for hydrocodone-acetaminophen combinations such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco. Once the #1 most widely dispensed drug in the nation, hydrocodone now ranks fifth, behind drugs used to treat thyroid deficiency, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Only 68 million prescriptions for hydrocodone were dispensed last year, half the number that were filled in 2011.

U.S. HYDROCODONE PRESCRIPTIONS (MILLIONS)

Source: IQVIA

Due to fears about addiction and overdose, hydrocodone was reclassified by the DEA as a Schedule II controlled substance in 2014, requiring new prescriptions for every refill.

“My hydrocodone has been cut in half and my pain is out of control. I feel like a criminal, like I am committing a crime each time I pick up my prescription. I now have to visit my doctor once a month to receive my script,” one patient told us.

“I was prescribed hydrocodone over the last couple of decades for severe chronic pain with very positive effects. Now I am unable to carry out a lifestyle for a man my age, I'm basically done/finished.  My way of life is over,” a disabled veteran wrote.

“Stop denying the patients that have real pain. I don’t use it to get high. Hydrocodone is the only thing that has helped my back pain. I’ve tried a lot of things but nothing helps. It frees me of enough of the pain that I can function like a normal person,” another patient said.

The shift away from hydrocodone and other opioids has benefited pharmaceutical companies that make non-opioid medications such as Neurontin (gabapentin) and Lyrica (pregabalin).  Prescriptions for gabapentin reached 67 million last year – nearly the same as hydrocodone.

These trends have yet to show much benefit for pain patients, who increasingly report their pain is poorly treated. In a recent PNN survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 85% said their pain and quality of life are worse since the release of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline. One in five say they are hoarding opioid medication because they fear losing access to it in the future.

Mayo Clinic: Opioid Prescribing Has Not Changed

By Pat Anson, Editor

Numerous studies have shown that opioid prescriptions are falling. The trend started in 2011 and appears to have accelerated since the release of the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines.

The volume of opioid medication filled last year fell by 12 percent, the largest decline in 25 years, according to the IQVIA Institute.  Prescriptions for hydrocodone – once the most widely prescribed drug in the country – have fallen by a third since their peak. Even the CDC has reported that opioid prescriptions have dropped by about 5% each year between 2012 and 2016.

Anecdotally, many patients tell us opioids are harder, if not impossible, to obtain. Nearly half of the 3,100 patients PNN surveyed last year said they were getting a lower dose. And one in four said they were no longer prescribed opioids.

But according to Mayo Clinic researchers, opioid prescribing hasn't changed that much and remains at high levels. In a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), they report that opioid prescriptions for Medicare and privately insured patients have remained relatively stable over the past few years. And the average daily dose of opioids is well above what it was 10 years ago.

“If you’re hearing the message that prescription opioid use is starting to decline, I think we need to counter that message and say in most populations it really isn’t moving very much.” says lead author Molly Jeffery, PhD, scientific director of the Mayo Clinic Division of Emergency Medicine Research. “Our data suggest not much has changed in prescription opioid use since about five years ago.”

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Why the discrepancy? Jeffrey says most of the previous studies only looked at market-level data – the amount of opioids that drug makers reported producing and selling. She and her colleagues dug a little deeper, looking at insurance claims for 48 million U.S. patients between 2007 and 2016.  

Over that 10-year period, the rate of opioid use by privately insured patients remained relatively flat at 6 to 7 percent. The average daily dose for that group, about two pills of 5-milligram oxycodone, remained the same.

The rate of opioid use by Medicare patients 65 and older peaked at 15% in 2010 and decreased slightly to 14% by 2016. Their average daily dose, three 5 mg pills of oxycodone, also remained relatively unchanged.

Rates of opioid use by disabled Medicare patients also haven't changed much, peaking at 41% in 2013 and falling to 39% in 2016. Their average daily dose remains relatively high, about eight 5 mg oxycodone pills. 

“Our research of patient-level data doesn’t show the decline that was found in previous research,” says Jeffery. “We wanted to know how the declines were experienced by individual people. Did fewer people have opioid prescriptions? Did people taking opioids take less over time? When we looked at it that way, we found a different picture.”

The Mayo study includes an interesting disclaimer. While the researchers looked at data from patient insurance claims, they never surveyed or spoke to any patients about their opioid use. The researchers said they would “engage” with patients in future blog posts and press releases.

You can share your views with Molly Jeffery by email at jeffery.molly@mayo.edu or @mollyjeffery on Twitter.

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.