Oregon Drops Opioid Tapering Plan

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

An Oregon health panel has tabled a controversial plan that would have forced tens of thousands of Medicaid patients with neck and back pain to stop taking opioid medication. The Health Evidence Review Commission (HERC) voted unanimously to wait for additional studies to be completed later this year, which effectively delays any change in medical coverage under the Oregon Health Plan until 2022.

The forced tapering plan drew nationwide criticism from pain sufferers, patient advocates and pain management experts, who said it would “exacerbate suffering for thousands of patients.”

"Pain is complicated and different for everyone," said HERC chairman Kevin Olson, MD, in a statement. "We heard loud and clear that pain treatment and opioid tapering should be individualized based on the patient-clinician relationship. I am pleased that we were able to align the neck and back coverage with these principles."

If a patient with any chronic pain condition is not doing well with an opioid taper, HERC said the tapering should stop without consequence to the prescriber or patient.

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But patient advocates say some doctors have already implemented HERC’s forced tapering proposal without waiting for it to be finalized.

“Many patients across Oregon have already suffered tapering from their opiate pain management or have been dropped by their physician as a result of this policy. Those patients who have already been affected deserve proper treatment for their medical conditions and must have their previous pain management regiments and care reinstated,” said Amanda Siebe, a pain patient and disabled activist who recently announced she was running for Congress in Oregon’s 1st congressional district.

“It's time HERC made up for the damage they've done to this community over the last 2 years, and give us the proper care and coverage we deserve to maintain functionality and quality of life. This fight won't be over for us until all patients are able to receive the pain management, care, and coverage they need and deserve.”

The HERC also voted unanimously to continue not covering treatment for five common chronic pain conditions, citing a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of any therapy, including opioids. The five conditions are chronic pain caused by trauma, post-surgical chronic pain, chronic pain syndrome, fibromyalgia and “other chronic pain.”

Patients advocates had supported a plan to cover those condition, not only with opioid therapy, but with alternative treatments such as physical therapy, acupuncture and yoga.

“The conditions being discussed are valid conditions, and I think they’re in need of medical treatment options. I think that opioids should be a part of those options,” Wendy Sinclair, a pain patient and co-founder of the Oregon Pain Action Group told the Bend Bulletin. “Doctors and patients need to work together and have those options available.”

HERC’s decision to reverse course on tapering was a significant and rare victory for the pain community, which rarely gets a set at the table or is listened to when political and regulatory decisions are made about opioid medication.

Last year over a hundred pain management experts signed a letter to HERC warning that its tapering plan would have been the most restrictive in the U.S. and was unsupported by treatment guidelines. That warning was recently echoed by the Food and Drug Administration, which said rapid tapering and forced discontinuation of opioids was causing “serious harm” to patients, including withdrawal, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.

Oregon Health Official Defends Opioid Plan

By Pat Anson, Editor

The head of Oregon’s Health Authority is defending a controversial plan that would force many of the state’s Medicaid patients off opioids.

In an op/ed this week in the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Allen wrote that patients deserve “safe, effective choices to relieve pain -- not just a pill.” He suggested physical therapy, exercise and massage would be better alternatives.

At issue is a task force recommendation to limit Medicaid coverage of opioids to just 90-days for five broad chronic pain conditions – including fibromyalgia and chronic pain caused by trauma.  Patients already on opioids longer than 90 days would be given one year to taper off the medications and switch to alternative therapies that would be covered by Medicaid.

The plan has drawn criticism nationwide from chronic pain patients, advocates and pain management experts. Drs. Sally Satel and Stefan Kertesz wrote in another WSJ op/ed that the plan would “exacerbate suffering for thousands of patients.”

Allen disagrees, saying opioids are too risky to use long-term.

“This new proposal would expand evidence-based options for chronic pain management, allowing Oregonians to find a care plan that works for them,” Allen wrote.  “Evidence is insufficient to determine the effectiveness of long-term opioid therapy for improving chronic pain and function.

“Offering only one pain-management option that continues to kill Americans at alarming rates is a tragedy we can’t accept.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Allen does not hold a medical degree and has spent most of his career working in the banking industry and as a state regulator in consumer and business affiars. He was appointed last year as director of the Oregon Health Authority, which operates the state’s Medicaid program and purchases health insurance for over 400,000 public employees and teachers.

PATRICK ALLEN

PATRICK ALLEN

Oregon’s Health Evidence Review Commission held a public hearing on the opioid proposal earlier this month, but has not given final approval. If adopted, the opioid restrictions would not go into effect until 2020.

Opioid prescribing in Oregon has been declining for years – as it has nationwide – but the state has the highest rate of non-medical use of prescription opioids in the country. About three Oregonians die every week from an opioid overdose.

Oregon Opioid Plan Would Do 'Substantially More Harm'

By Pat Anson, Editor

A proposed change in Oregon’s Medicaid program would result in the forced tapering of many pain patients off opioid medication and do “substantially more harm than good,” according to a group of pain physicians, academics and patient advocates.

At issue is a recommendation by a task force to limit Oregon Health Plan coverage of opioids to just 90-days for five broad chronic pain conditions – including fibromyalgia and chronic pain caused by trauma.  Medicaid patients with those conditions taking opioids beyond 90 days would lose coverage for the pain relievers and be encouraged to use alternative pain therapies such as yoga, acupuncture and physical therapy, which would be covered under the plan.

“We recently learned of efforts by the Oregon Medicaid Pain Task Force to deny coverage of opioids beyond 90 days for most chronic pain conditions and, effectively, to mandate the taper of current patients receiving opioid therapy. We believe that such efforts risk doing substantially more harm than good,” wrote Kate Nicholson, a civil rights attorney and pain patient, in a letter to Oregon health officials. The letter was co-signed by over a dozen  physicians, academics and advocates.

“An across-the-board denial of opioid therapy for the huge umbrella category of chronic pain is as destructive as is liberally prescribing opioids for all types of chronic pain,” the letter warns. “The denial of coverage to the Medicaid population, in particular, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on individuals with disabilities, on the sickest patients and those with multiple chronic conditions.”

Oregon’s Health Evidence Review Commission will review the proposal at its August 9th meeting. The commission could give final approval as early as October, but the opioid restrictions would not go into effect until 2020, according to the Bend Bulletin.

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“Individuals with chronic pain really face debilitating conditions that impact quality of life, yet we’re faced with this significant opioid epidemic where we know there’s a lot of misuse and overprescribing,” Dr. Dana Hargunani, chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority, told the Bulletin. “We’re trying to use evidence to guide us, but we really welcome public input into the process. I know it’s a really significant issue for many individuals.” 

Opioid prescribing in Oregon has been declining for years – as it has nationwide – yet the state has “one of the highest rates of prescription opioid abuse in the nation,” according to the Oregon Health Authority. An average of three Oregonians die every week from an opioid overdose. However, many of those deaths involve the “non-medical” use of opioid pain relievers by drug abusers, not patients.

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found Oregon to have the highest rate of non-medical use of prescription pain relievers in the country.

“I’m very sad for the people who OD’d,” pain patient Steve Hix told the Bulletin. “But what’s that got to do with me?”