Lessons from 'American Overdose' on the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The book “American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts” by Chris McGreal takes a hard look at the opioid crisis. The book focuses on the legal and political side of the crisis, along with a history of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, and a detailed description of pill mills and rogue pharmacies in Appalachia.

“It is a tragedy forged by the capture of medical policy by corporations and the failure of institutions in their duty to protect Americans,” is how McGreal describes the genesis and evolution of the crisis.

The book highlights the massive collusion and corruption in communities in West Virginia and Kentucky, leading to the Williamson Wellness Center and other pill mills that were protected by law enforcement, ignored by state and federal regulators, and encouraged or exploited by drug manufacturers and distributors.

McGreal also traces the history of Purdue and the Sackler family, and how their efforts to improve pain management led to the creation of the blockbuster drug OxyContin. He explains how Purdue’s marketing claims “proved to be demonstrably false, including an assertion that addiction is rare when opioids are taken under a doctor’s care.”

However, McGreal does not depict Purdue as a lone bad actor. Instead, federal and state dysfunction and disinterest contributed to the crisis. “The FDA wasn’t the only one to drop the ball. A clutch of federal agencies with long names have responsibility for combating drug addiction and overdose,” he wrote. And they all failed.

The failure was both systemic and systematic. As the crisis unfolded, local law enforcement had to contend with “indifference and what they regarded as the political cowardice of the system.” Perhaps more important than the cowardice and corruption was greed, not just corporate greed but also local greed for the money brought in by pill mills: “The businesses did good. You had pharmacies that were doing really good.”

The problem soon extended far beyond Appalachia. Among the earliest and biggest pill mills was American Pain, set up in 2007 near Fort Lauderdale, Florida by twin brothers Chris and Jeff George – neither of whom had medical training.

Opioid addiction also rose across the nation because of cultural factors, writes McGreal. In Utah, “the dominance of the conservative Church of Latter-day Saints appeared to be a cause of addiction, not a deterrent” because of the church’s “toxic perfectionism.”

Government agencies and officials were encouraged to ignore it all. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office wasn’t interested in pursuing pill mills and the “political leadership within Florida wasn’t much better.”

Rudy Giuliani, Eric Holder, and James Comey all helped Purdue, according to McGreal, by delaying investigations of the company as addiction and overdose rates rose rapidly in the 2000’s.

The CDC’s involvement is described as delayed and dysfunctional. "Until 1998 the United States used a classification system lumping heroin, morphine, and prescription opiate deaths together," McGreal points out. Even when CDC researcher Len Paulozzi documented rising trends in overdose deaths, no one paid serious attention until Thomas Frieden, MD, became director. Even then, serious flaws remain in how the CDC reports on overdose deaths.  

Anti-opioid activists Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), and PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD, sounded warnings about opioids, but offered little in the way of solutions outside of cutting off prescriptions. Many of their warnings proved to be unfounded, in particular with the opioid analgesic Zohydro. The drug was approved by the FDA amid dire warnings of a major spike in addiction and overdoses, but “there was no great surge of overdoses because of Zohydro.”

“FDA officials don’t like Kolodny. They characterize him as unreasonable and difficult. One described him as a ‘complex character’,” McGreal writes.

Similarly, the 2016 CDC opioid prescribing guideline is described as too late to be useful. McGreal looks closely at the debate about the CDC guideline and recommendations from the 2017 opioid commission set up by President Trump. But despite these much-touted steps, “little changed on the ground for states desperate for treatment facilities and help with the social costs of the tragedy.”

The book concludes on a pessimistic note, captured in a comment from Nathaniel Katz, MD, about opioid addiction and overdose: "I don’t really see any prospect for intelligent policy in this area in the United States.”

McGreal summarizes his ideas with an indictment of American culture.

"In large parts of the United States, opioids were popular because they were a fix. A fix for emotional pain. A fix for failing bodies. A fix for struggling to make it in a society that promises so much, and judges by what is achieved, but turns it back on so many of those who fail to live up to that promise," he writes.

If “American Overdose” offers lessons, it is that the opioid crisis is a result not only corporate greed but also American culture; in particular politicians, regulators and a broader medical industry with agendas contrary to the public good. The book is an origin tale of the opioid crisis that offers little hope for the future.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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. 

Better Analysis Needed on Non-Medical Use of Opioids

By Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, Guest Columnist

A few months ago, the medical journal World Psychiatry published an article that focused on the global non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly psychoactive substances such as opioids.

Unfortunately, the two authors -- Dr. Silvia Martins and Dr. Lilian Ghandour -- ignored the distinction between prescription and prescribed opioids, adding unnecessary confusion to the already complex debate about access to pain treatment. Further, Dr. Martins said in the Washington Post that the non-medical use of psychoactive substances could turn into a pandemic if we are not careful.

Both authors are affiliated with Columbia University’s Mailman Institute of Public Health, which claims to work in the interest of underserved people in developing countries. Access to effective pain treatment in developing countries is already now more difficult than in the U.S.

Elsewhere, I have demonstrated that access to prescribed opioids for adequate pain treatment is a problem for 5.5 billion people living in countries where opioid analgesics are not available or inaccessible for patients in need.

In most countries, the per capita consumption of legitimately prescribed opioid analgesics (as officially reported to the International Narcotics Control Board) remains much lower than in the U.S. and Canada, in extreme cases even up to 50,000 times lower.

Distinction Between “Prescribed” and “Prescription” is Key

There is a vast difference between prescription and prescribed opioids. Prescription opioids are intended to be prescribed as medicines. Prescribed medicines are actually prescribed by a physician and dispensed by a pharmacy.

About 75% of fatal overdoses from prescription opioids in the U.S. occur in people who have not been prescribed opioids during the three months preceding their deaths. Thus, the majority must have obtained these prescription opioids on the black or gray market.

Without referencing the data, Drs. Martins and Ghandour claim that prescription opioids are causing serious problems in other parts of the world. However, data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction and the European Drug Report indicate that diversion of prescription opioids is not a serious problem in Europe. In other regions of the world, per capita prescription of opioids is very low.

Drs. Martins and Ghandour claim a high prevalence of non-medical use of prescription opioids in Saudi Arabia. However, those medicines are hardly ever prescribed in that country and medical consumption rates are only about 2.5 % of the U.S. volume. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s non-medical use of prescription opioids can hardly originate from prescribed opioids.

Unfortunately, World Psychiatry refused to publish a letter I wrote with other experts which addressed the misunderstandings stemming from Drs. Martins and Ghandour’s article.

PROP and the Anti-Opioid Lobby

The anti-opioid lobby in the U.S. does not shy away from using arguments not based on facts, just like Drs. Martins and Ghandour in their article. For example, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) perpetuates the mistaken conflation of prescription and prescribed opioids, advocating in the U.S. against the legitimate medical prescribing of opioid analgesics. PROP tries to justify its position using false statistics, as I demonstrated in a recent publication.

Moreover, PROP leadership participated in drafting the 2016 CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. PROP Executive Director Dr. Andrew Kolodny disclosed his involvement, but PROP President Dr. Jane Ballantyne and PROP Vice President Dr. Gary Franklin did not list the group as a relevant conflict of interest on their disclosure forms.

The Steve Rummler Hope Foundation is the “fiscal sponsor” of PROP. Its vision is “a world where individuals with chronic pain receive integrated care focused on wellness rather than drugs.” For patients with moderate or severe pain, this can hardly be an effective and humane treatment. PROP’s close ties with the Steve Rummler Foundation are revealed by Dr. Kolodny’s and Dr. Ballantyne’s membership on its medical advisory committee.

Policies Should Balance All Public Health Interests

Indeed, it is correct to attend to the non-medical use of psychoactive substances. However, the situation outside the U.S. is really different. In many countries, patients have no access to adequate pain management. Measures to address non-medical use of opioids should not hamper access to effective pain management.

Policymakers in countries with a low per capita medical opioid consumption and low prescription rates should first analyse how prescription opioids that have not been prescribed enter circulation. The relationship between the non-medical use of prescription opioids and illicitly produced substances such as heroin should also be taken into consideration. Then, appropriate interventions to halt the diversion should be developed.

In parallel, policymakers should develop policies aimed at ensuring adequate provision of pain treatment as recommended by the World Health Organization. Optimal public health outcomes can only be attained when policies to minimize non-medical use are balanced with policies to maximize access to adequate pain management. Crafting such policies entails correctly distinguishing between prescribed and prescription opioids.

Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, is an independent consultant for medicines and controlled substances at Willem Scholten Consultancy in the Netherlands. This has included work for DrugScience, Grünenthal, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Mundipharma, Pinney Associates and the World Health Organization. Dr. Scholten is also a board member of International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies.

He wishes to acknowledge Dr. Katherine Pettus for her contribution to this article.

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.

From Bad to Worse for Pain Patients?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Has the pendulum swung too far against pain patients?

The answer is "Yes" according to some leading pain management experts at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) in Palm Springs.  The AAPM represents 2,400 physicians and health care providers, including some who have stopped prescribing opioid pain medication because they fear prosecution or sanctions if they prescribe to patients who might abuse the drugs.

"There are a variety of primary care doctors that are dropping out altogether (from prescribing opioids). They will not allow it. They're saying everybody has to go to a pain management expert or you don't get anything. And its abrupt," said Bill McCarberg, MD, President of the AAPM. "For that group of patients, you're cutting everybody off inappropriately. There are some of those patients who probably need those medications, who do better with medications."

McCarberg, who volunteers at a health clinic in San Diego, says even opioids with abuse deterrent properties are difficult to prescribe because they are expensive and usually not covered by insurance. He is not optimistic about the continued use of opioids in pain management.

"In my experience over the last year its gotten worse and I think a year from now it will be even worse," McCarberg said. "When you come back here in five years, in ten years, we'll be having the discussion about the pendulum being over here, patients suffering.  About you getting shoulder surgery and getting nothing but acetaminophen to treat your shoulder because nobody is willing to give you more (opioids). That's what I worry about."

"I think that's right. I think the pendulum has swung in the direction of things being worse for patients very rapidly and very dramatically. And I don't think its finished swinging yet," says Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the American Academy of Pain Management.

"I think its the general atmosphere, the whole focus on opioid overdoses and all of that stuff.  That's what is driving the CDC's actions and every bit of the press that's out there is about that problem. And until we get the other side of the story out there and point out that not treating pain has negative consequences too, including people dying, until we can get that story out there and get some traction with it, patients are in a bad place."

PROP President Speaks to AAPM

Although the AAPM has "very significant concerns" about the quality of evidence and "negative bias" in some of the CDC's proposed opioid prescribing guidelines, it invited a controversial figure who helped draft them to its annual meeting. Jane Ballantyne, MD, who is president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), served on a CDC advisory panel known the "Core Expert Group." The CDC guidelines discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

Ballantyne, who gave a talk at the AAPM meeting on "Pain Curriculum Development for Primary Care Practitioners," recently come under fire for co-authoring an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that said reducing pain intensity should not be the primary goal of doctors that treat chronic pain. 

Several patient advocates asked AAPM to remove Ballantyne from the program.

"How, in good conscience, can you include someone with her views about pain teach other physicians, or influence future curriculum for physicians, on how to effectively treat pain? It is clear from her writings that she doesn’t understand pain, or painful disease processes. Should someone with views like this be influencing our present and future doctors?" wrote Ingrid Hollis of Families for Intractable Pain Relief in a letter to the AAPM.

"While I appreciate your concerns about including Dr. Ballantyne as a member of the faculty, the Academy will not comply with your request that it remove her from the program," responded Phil Saigh, Jr., Executive Director of AAPM. "The Academy is committed to the free exchange of information and perspectives among pain physicians and other clinicians.  It is this commitment that ensures that diverse perspectives are examined rather than creating a one-size-fits-all approach to education. To remove Dr. Ballantyne from the program would not be true to that commitment."

Ballantyne's presentation was low key and did not focus on opioid use. She spoke about improving pain curriculum in medical schools, an area where there is broad agreement that change is needed. 

"Pain education has been really, really bad. And a large part of the problem, in terms of primary care, is actually managing those with chronic pain and not having received any education on how to do that," said Ballantyne, who explained that her own education and training in the 1970's focused on pain medication and injections, and did not include other disciplines such as psychology.

"The evidence suggests strongly that entry level pain management training is widely inadequate across all disciplines in the United States. Only a few medical schools in Canada and the U.S. offer courses on pain," she said. "The young primary care physicians that I work with are suddenly faced with this extremely complex disease, chronic pain, and they have only been taught to see it in a unitary way. That's what leads to a very simple treatment goal, which is simply to reduce pain intensity.

JANE BALLANTYNE, MD

JANE BALLANTYNE, MD

"When we treat chronic pain we do an awful lot more or want to achieve an awful lot more than simply reducing pain intensity. We want to improve people's lives. We want to help them function better. We want to improve their state of mind and their mood, and have to pay attention to all the other factors that contribute to the disease. Chronic pain is a complex disease that is not simply a focus on pain intensity. And that's one thing we can really help in our teaching."  

All Things Considered: Except Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered is one of the most respected radio programs in the country, reaching nearly 12 million listeners each week.

So when All Things Considered aired a two-part series this week on the opioid prescribing guidelines being developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many expected an in-depth and balanced report on America’s love-hate relationship with opioids – how a medicine that gives pain relief to millions is also responsible for the deaths of thousands who abuse it.

Host Robert Siegel said the nation was at a “turning point” in its complicated relationship with opioids. The broadcast interviewed pain specialists, a family physician, and various experts who said the CDC guidelines either go too far or are long overdue.

“We have a moral responsibility to address pain and suffering. And we do have a responsibility not to do harm, but you can do harm in either direction,” said Richard Payne, MD, of Duke University.

“The number of deaths is only the tip of the iceberg, that's just indicating the pyramid of problems that lies beneath,” said Jane Ballantyne, MD, President of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP).

Completely missing from the report was the voice of pain patients. Many noticed the omission and left comments on NPR’s website.   

“Please consider interviewing real chronic pain patients. Everyone seems to be making decisions about our treatment but no one asks us how these medications work for us,” wrote one pain sufferer.

“Sorry but NPR screwed up majorly on this piece – they had no panel of patients to give their thoughts – considering how terrible pain patients are treated, that would have been a good angle,” wrote Cary Brief.

“The recent public discussion on opiates, which paints all opiate users as addicts or drug-seeking, is not only unhelpful, it is exceedingly harmful to patients like myself who take their medications as prescribed,” said a woman who suffers from chronic back pain.

“I am amazed at my beloved NPR not doing their homework on this,” wrote Kristine Anderson. “You have just labeled yourself another media outlet getting your information from only the CDC (other than Dr. Payne perhaps) and creating feed off of their press releases, timely sent just as the guidelines comments were reopened and soon to close.”

Anderson also wrote she was disappointed that the broadcast included a lengthy interview with Ballantyne, a retired pain specialist who has recently emerged as a controversial figure in the debate over opioids. As Pain News Network has reported, Ballantyne is one of five PROP board members who are advising the CDC and her inclusion in a secret panel of experts is one of the reasons the agency delayed implementing the guidelines and reopened a public comment period.

Critics have said Ballantyne is biased, has a financial conflict of interest, and should be fired from her academic position at the University of Washington School of Medicine for advocating that pain intensity not be treated.

None of that was reported by All Things Considered, which gave Ballantyne a prominent role in the broadcast. Ballantyne told the program that during her lengthy career in pain management she and other doctors were sometimes abused and insulted by “awful” pain patients when they tried to wean them off opiates.

“If you give people opiates, they think you're the best thing since sliced bread. They love you. They just worship the ground you walk on. The moment you suggest that you want to try and get them down on their dose or, worse still, say you can't carry on prescribing - not that I do that myself; I never cut people off; I don't think people should be cut off, but I do try and persuade them to come down on their dose - they are so awful,” Ballantyne said.

“And you can see why people who are not seeped in this stuff - the young primary care physicians just don't know what to make of it. They don't want to be abused. They want to be loved like everybody else does. We go into medicine to try and help people. And when you get abused and, you know, insulted, you can see why it perpetuates itself.”

Ballantyne said patients on high doses of opiates “were absolutely miserable, were not doing well, were medically ill and always had severe pain." It was then that she and her colleagues began to think "the opiate wasn't helping, and maybe it was harming.”

You can listen to Ballantyne in the first part of NPR’s story, by clicking here.

The second part -- an interview with Dr. Wanda Filer, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians -- can be heard by clicking here.

Controversy Grows over Journal Article on Pain Treatment

By Pat Anson, Editor

It’s not uncommon for colleagues in the medical profession to disagree. Egos and different medical backgrounds can sometimes lead to heated discussions about the best way to treat patients. But those arguments are usually kept private. 

That is why it is so unusual for a prominent pain physician to publicly call for another doctor to resign or be fired from her faculty position at a prestigious medical school.

“I believe she should resign her academic post,” says Forest Tennant, MD, referring to Jane Ballantyne, MD, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who recently co-authored a controversial article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that said reducing pain intensity should not be the goal of doctors who treat chronic pain. The article also suggests that patients should learn to accept their pain and move on with their lives.

“For somebody in her position as a professor at a university to call for physicians to quit treating pain – or pain intensity – whether acute, chronic, whether rich, poor, disabled or what have you, is totally inappropriate. And it’s an insult to the physicians of the world and an insult to patients. And frankly, she should not be a professor.” Tennant told Pain News Network.

“To suggest that physicians should no longer treat pain intensity and let patients suffer goes beyond any sort of decency or concern for humanity.”

Tennant is a pain management specialist who has treated patients for over 40 years at his pain clinic in West Covina, California. He’s authored over 300 scientific articles and books, is editor emeritus of Practical Pain Management, and is highly regarded  in the pain community for accepting difficult, hard-to-treat patients that other doctors have given up on.

dr. forest tennant

dr. forest tennant

Tennant was surprised the influential, peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine, which reaches over 600,000 people each week, even published the article.

I know that they’re biased and they’ve got all their medical device people there and all their academia and all that, but I think they have a responsibility also. They are supposedly representing medicine,” says Tennant. “Why do I have a medical degree if I’m not supposed to treat pain intensity? Give me an answer to that. She didn’t have an alternative did she?”

dr. jane ballantyne

dr. jane ballantyne

Exactly what Ballantyne and co-author Mark Sullivan, MD, meant to say is open to interpretation. Pain News Network has been unable to get comment from either about the controversy.

They began their article by saying “pain that can be relieved should be relieved,” but then veer off in another direction, stating that chronic pain should not be treated with opioid pain medication.

“Is a reduction in pain intensity the right goal for the treatment of chronic pain? We have watched as opioids have been used with increasing frequency and in escalating doses in an attempt to drive down pain scores — all the while increasing rates of toxic drug effects, exposing vulnerable populations to risk, and failing to relieve the burden of chronic pain,” they wrote, dismissing the pain intensity scales that are widely used by physicians to measure pain levels.

“We propose that pain intensity is not the best measure of the success of chronic-pain treatment. When pain is chronic, its intensity isn't a simple measure of something that can be easily fixed.”

Ballantyne and Sullivan offered no alternative “fixes” for pain treatment, other than patients learning to live with pain and sitting down for a chat with their doctors.

“Nothing is more revealing or therapeutic than a conversation between a patient and a clinician, which allows the patient to be heard and the clinician to appreciate the patient's experiences and offer empathy, encouragement, mentorship, and hope,” they wrote.

Angry Comments from Readers

The article infuriated both patients and physicians, including dozens who left angry comments on the NEJM website.

“Great job. I will be going into the coffin business thanks to these believers that people should suck it up. How NEJM even recognizes these people as doctors and not quacks is beyond me,” wrote Michael Shabi, who identified himself as a family practice physician.

“I take just enough narcotic pain meds to cut the edge off of my pain to be coherent enough to love my wife and respond to your constant misinformation. I have had 21 neurological surgeries and procedures and live in constant pain. So why in the heck do you people have such a problem in hearing us?” asked pain patient Kerry Smith.

“Only an idiot might conclude that one can dismiss the effects of living with a healthcare problem that reminds you of its presence with every move you make,” wrote Terri Lewis, PhD, a specialist in rehabilitation.

Both Ballantyne and Sullivan have lengthy careers in medicine and have been active in organizations that discourage the use of opioids. 

According to the University of Washington website, Ballantyne received her medical degree from the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London and trained in anesthesiology at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. She moved to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1990 and then to the University of Washington in 2011, as a Professor of Education and Research and as Director of the UW Pain Fellowship. 

Last year Ballantyne was named president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an advocacy group funded by Phoenix House, which operates a chain of addiction treatment centers. She also serves as an expert adviser to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as it develops controversial new guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids. Ballantyne is one of five PROP board members who are advising the CDC on the guidelines.

Sullivan is a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences -- also at the University of Washington School of Medicine -- and is executive director of Collaborative Opioid Prescribing Education (COPE), a program that educates healthcare providers about safe opioid prescribing practices. He is also a PROP board member.

Sullivan has authored several research articles on opioids, including a recent one warning about the co-prescribing of sedatives and opioids.

“He’s not as well known,” says Tennant. “He doesn’t carry the public influence that she does. She’s sitting on federal committees, advising CDC that pain patients should not be treated and the intensity scale should not be used. I cannot imagine anyone making that statement. I can’t imagine the New England Journal of Medicine publishing it. The atrocity here is just awful.

dr. mark sullivan

dr. mark sullivan

“Any semblance of decency left among physicians in PROP, if that’s what they believe, then I think the whole organization ought to close its doors. I didn’t know they were going to say we didn’t want pain treated at all. They said they wanted to use opioids responsibly. Well, that’s fair. But that’s not what she said.”

Tennant is urging the pain community to contact Paul Ramsey, the CEO of UW Medicine and Dean of the School of Medicine to ask that Ballantyne be fired. He’s gotten a few takers, including Becky Roberts, who suffers from arachnoiditis.

“I do not feel she should be teaching new medical students. Professor influence is big when you are a student. I am sure if any one of them read her article, most were probably shocked,” Roberts said in an email to Pain News Network.

“They did not get into medicine because they are uncaring. Compassion for other human beings is why they went to medical school. To help heal human beings is their goal. I really do think she needs to be removed from that position. How long has she been teaching this kind of logic?”

The UW School of Medicine has about 4,500 students enrolled in undergraduate, professional, and post-graduate programs.