Tennessee’s ‘Absolutely Crazy’ Opioid Law

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor, and Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio

Since the CDC released its opioid guideline in 2016, over 30 states have passed legislation that limit opioid prescriptions in some way. Most limit the supply to a few days for initial opioid prescriptions and some set limits on the doses that doctors can prescribe.

Which state has the toughest opioid regulations?

“Tennessee is just absolutely crazy,” says Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.

Twillman is referring to a strict and complicated state law that took effect in July that restricts how long Tennessee doctors can prescribe opioids to patients.

“Depending on what you document and depending on your judgement of what’s going on with the patient, you’re either limited to a 3-day supply, a 10-day supply, a 21-day supply or a 30-day supply of an opioid,” Twillman told PNN.

“You wonder how in the world they’re ever going to police this. If it’s a particularly severe case you could do a 21-day supply, but if it’s a rare case then you can do a 30-day supply. What is the difference?”

Tennessee also limits the dose that doctors prescribe, under a complicated formula that lowers the allowable dose the longer a prescription lasts. In other words, you may get more pills but the dose will be smaller.

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Any “significant deviation” from Tennessee’s opioid law could result in disciplinary action for a doctor not showing “sound medical judgment.” First offenders could be banned from prescribing opioids for five years.

“They’ve left us saying make your own best judgement and document the reason for it and cross your fingers and hope you’re going to be okay,” says Twillman.

Some doctors have decided not to take that risk. Many primary care providers in Tennessee have stopped prescribing opioids and are referring patients to the state’s dwindling supply of pain clinics, where waiting lists are long and there’s no guarantee a new patient will even be able to get treatment.

Insurers Drop OxyContin

But it’s not just legislation that limits how pain patients are being treated in Tennessee. Insurance companies are refusing to pay for some opioids.

The largest insurer in Tennessee recently announced it will no longer cover prescriptions for OxyContin, what was once a blockbuster pain reliever. It’s the latest insurance company to turn against OxyContin, whose maker, Purdue Pharma, faces dozens of lawsuits related to its high-pressure sales tactics around the country and contribution to the opioid crisis. Last fall, Cigna and Florida Blue both dropped coverage of the drug.

Top officials at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) say newer abuse-deterrent opioids work better than OxyContin, and starting in January, the insurer covering 3.5 million Tennesseans will only pay for opioids made by other pharmaceutical companies.

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“We felt it was time to move to those products and remove Oxycontin from the formulary, which does still continue to have a higher street value,” said Natalie Tate, the insurer’s vice president of pharmacy.

OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make the drug harder to misuse — but it’s still possible to crush or liquefy in order to snort or inject it.

The latest long-acting opioids that BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is going to start covering — Xtampza and Morphabond — are still more difficult to misuse, according to the company and some pharmaceutical experts.

Practicing pain physicians in Tennessee — who regularly battle with insurance companies —  approve of the change, though they said OxyContin was already falling out of favor. And they argue trading one opioid for slightly safer ones doesn’t address a larger gripe that physicians have with insurers over paying for other, non-addictive types of treatment.

“We will have denials and prior authorizations on a muscle relaxer, and we will have no issue getting an opioid through the insurance company,” said Dr. Stephanie Vanterpool, an anesthesiologist at the University of Tennessee and the president-elect of the Tennessee Pain Society.

“The physicians or the doctor’s offices jump through hoops to get the better medication for the patients,” said Vanterpool. “And when I say better medication, I mean the medication that’s treating the cause of the pain, not just the medication that’s covering up the pain.”

Not to say OxyContin won’t be sorely missed by some patients.

“There are plenty of people who benefit from that drug,” said Terri Lewis, a patient advocate and rehabilitation specialist from Cookeville, Tenn.

Lewis is suspicious of BCBST’s motives since the insurer may be blamed for its role in the opioid crisis. Embattled Purdue Pharma could also be a convenient scapegoat.

“Maybe this is a good decision,” Lewis said. “But it smells like a political decision.”

This would be just the latest decision inserting politics into a nuanced medical problem that affects millions of pain patients.

John Venable of Kingsport, Tenn., was shown the door by his pain clinic in July after more than a decade on oxycodone — a generic, short-acting version of OxyContin.

“I just felt like I was in a hopeless state, like, ‘there is no help for John,'” he recalled.

At their worst, he said his headaches get so debilitating “that death would be a relief.” Despite his dread, he’s noticed something surprising over the last few months without opioids — his crippling headaches haven’t gotten that much worse, if at all.

“It very well might be a blessing in disguise,” Venable said.

The retired builder and one-time pastor said he prays that those losing OxyContin also will get to use the moment as an opportunity, though he knows many can’t cut ties with opioids. And he worries some will turn to more dangerous drugs off the street or even contemplate ending their own lives.

Experts point out that the number of opioid prescriptions has already been falling around the country. And in Tennessee, BCBS has experienced a 26 percent drop in opioid prescription claims over three years.

But restricting legal access to opioids hasn’t turned back the rise in overdose deaths, which hit a record in Tennessee and nationwide last year.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Feds Say Bankrupt Drug Lab Paid Millions in Kickbacks

By Pat Anson, Editor

A bankrupt drug testing lab with a checkered history has been linked to a large money laundering and pill mill operation in Tennessee.

According to an updated indictment in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Confirmatrix Laboratory in Georgia and Sterling Laboratories in Seattle paid nearly $3 million in illegal kickbacks to have thousands of urine drug test samples sent to them from patients at the Knoxville Hope Clinic (KHC). In return, the labs submitted false claims for "unnecessary" drug tests to Medicare and TennCare, Tennesee’s Medicaid program.

“Confirmatrix, by and through its principals and agents, paid bribes and kickbacks to defendants Clyde Christopher Tipton and Maynard Alvarez in return for causing Medicare and TennCare beneficiaries from KHC to be referred to Confirmatrix for medically unnecessary drug screenings,” the indictment alleges.

“Medical providers at KHC prescribed opioids and other controlled substances to thousands of purported pain patients in exchange for grossly excessive fees. The vast majority of the prescriptions were unreasonable and medically unnecessary. Patients were required to keep follow-up appointments every 28 days to continue receiving their prescriptions. Providers at KHC ordered medically unnecessary Drug Screenings for every patient every 28 days.”

Tipton, Alvarez and six other defendants are accused of drug trafficking and money laundering in the long-running investigation of Tennessee pill mills. The ringleader of the pill mill scheme, a 53-year old grandmother named Sylvia Hofstetter, allegedly made millions of dollars while running clinics that prescribed 12 million opioid prescriptions. Prosecutors have alleged that at least nine patients at the clinics died from drug overdoses.

No one affiliated with Confirmatrix or Sterling Laboratories has been indicted so far in the case. Prosecutors say the   alleged kickbacks were paid from August 2013 to July 2016.

As PNN has reported, Confirmatrix filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last November, just two days after its headquarters near Atlanta was raided by FBI agents.  The company was founded by Khalid Satary, a convicted felon and Palestinian national that the federal government has been trying to deport for years.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) listed Confirmatrix as the most expensive drug lab in the country, collecting an average of $2,406 from Medicare for each patient tested, compared to the national average of $751. The bills from Confirmatrix were high because the company ran an average of nearly 120 different drug screens on each patient, far more than any other drug lab.

These and other abusive billing practices finally caused Medicare to lower its reimbursement rates for drug testing, which led to Confirmatrix’s financial problems.

Although it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy nine months ago, Confirmatrix remains in business and continues to bill patients and insurance companies for costly drug screens.

Some current and former patients at the Benefis Pain Management Center, a pain clinic in Great Falls, Montana, have received bills from a collection agency seeking well over $1,000 for drug screens that normally cost a few hundred dollars.

“Confirmatrix is out of network, hence I am stuck with the bill unless Benefis writes it off,” one patient told PNN. “I spoke to my insurance about it and they told me that there are labs in Montana that could have done the same thing and would have been covered by my insurance. She asked me, why they would go to a Georgia lab?”

In a statement to PNN in May, a Benefis official defended the clinic’s continued use of Confirmatrix, saying the company performs a valuable service and “waives many costs.”

“The company we have partnered with has an extensive patient assistance program, which is part of the reason they were selected. That company was selected two years ago because it was one of the few labs nationwide that offered quantitative and qualitative testing AND patient assistant programs,” said Kathy Hill, Chief Operating Officer at Benefis Medical Group.

Confirmatrix’s laboratory, office and warehouse space were recently put up for auction by the bankruptcy court under sealed bid.

Pain Care Shouldn’t Be Political Theater

By Richard Oberg, MD, Guest Columnist

The current hysteria over opioid pain medication is, without a doubt, the most unbelievable and difficult situation for patients I've ever seen in my 30 years of practice. With an increasing number of deaths due to overdose, the message has become that opioid medication is the problem. 

Healthy people, including healthy physicians, don't seem to believe chronic pain really exists to the degree that it does. Add in media hysteria with gross misrepresentation of the facts, often-cited CDC propaganda, and you have a recipe for disaster: addiction models applied to chronic pain patients.

Everyone's favorite defense mechanism – projection -- is overused constantly and many healthy people really think if they had chronic pain they'd somehow handle it differently or “beat it” which is nonsense.

Empathy is not a learned skill, nor is it widely prevalent in the population, including the majority of physicians. You feel it every time you see that look of disbelief from anyone, including physicians, regarding your chronic painful illness. Skepticism overrides compassion.  This attitude in the current climate has led to a crisis for patients.

At age 39, before I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and eventually late stage complications of spondylitis and neuropathy, I was a multi-mile runner and very active member of our large hospital staff. Then suddenly every step was like walking on broken glass, aching everywhere with flu-like symptoms, and getting maybe two hours of sleep per night.

I saw multiple colleagues who'd give me a pat on the back and tell me to “hang in there” as I was heading for a meltdown.  Instead of a rheumatologist, I was sent to a psychiatrist.  Even after I got a definitive diagnosis, everyone still just chose to ignore it.

Sound familiar?

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I finally found an “old school” internist, one of the few in our area willing to treat chronic pain, who convinced me to try opioid medication cautiously, despite my reservations.  Like many people, I thought they'd make me fuzzy headed (bad for a diagnostic pathologist spending 8 hours under a microscope), but the opposite happened. Suddenly I was back at a tolerable pain level and able to sleep at night again. I’ll never forget how compassionate he was.

Biologic drugs such as Enbrel, which were new then, helped a lot for maybe 12 years. Over time they can become less effective for many patients. I became severely allergic to Remicade (anaphylactic reaction) and all other biologic/systemic medications also ceased to do anything, including Rituxan, which is for rheumatoid arthritis and B-cell lymphoma. I was desperate to continue working and was only able to with opioid medication.

Opioid Propaganda

So here's our dilemma as pain patients: we have a major federal agency (CDC) peddling “addictionologist” propaganda on a massive scale and investigative journalism no longer exists. The news media is no longer the fourth branch of government, but merely a vehicle for their propaganda.

Our physicians, despite being the highest paid in the world in the most expensive healthcare system in the world, have signed onto this -- not wanting any scrutiny whatsoever from state or federal regulators. They won't script in these “militarized” situations, and are either risk averse or co-dependent (the latter is why they want to drop the pain scale). Most are going along with the CDC because they don't want the extra trouble and have abandoned patient responsibility entirely, going for the low hanging fruit of more routine healthcare issues instead.

We have a supply and demand situation working against us with too few providers, an abundance of chronic pain patients, and pills that aren't as profitable as procedures. This varies from state to state and even within states, but is rapidly spreading. Physicians obviously caused part of the problem by over-prescribing, but they have the money and power, and are now just walking away from it all. There is a deafening silence from physicians, even when they know their patients are being abused.

In many states, like Tennessee where I live, physicians run everything. State officials passed tort reform, so lawyers won't take medical cases anymore (we tried and know firsthand).  Physicians own our state malpractice insurer, State Volunteer Mutual, which brags every year about malpractice premium refunds due to a decreased numbers of lawsuits. It's not because our state has a phenomenal group of physicians, it's just that the bar for a lawsuit is so high (like death of someone young) there are very few of them.

Within relatively few years (partly due to addictionologists like Dr. Andrew Kolodny having an outsized voice at the CDC) the conversation went from the “epidemic” of overdose deaths (which it never really was) to “opioids don't work for chronic pain” -- despite the fact that there are no good studies to support that because they really haven't been done.

They just say it and the news media repeats it, much like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who stated on CNN’s “Prescription Addiction: Made in the USA” that overdoses were the #1 cause of preventable deaths in the Unites States. 

Sorry Sanjay, not even close. The CDC’s own statistics state that smoking and alcohol are the leading causes, with about 480,000 people dying every year – 25 times higher than the alleged 19,000 dying from prescription opioid medications.

How does this blatant propaganda get on CNN and what makes Sanjay Gupta an expert?

The ridiculous Consumer Reports cover story, The Dangers of Painkillers, also misused information supplied by the CDC. I've had a running email conversation with someone there for over a year asking why the bogus misuse of data - and got no answers of course.

Perhaps one of the most abominable statistical misuses by the CDC is confirmation bias, where they cherry pick data to “confirm” what they want to peddle, while ignoring other data, like the vast majority of pain patients doing well with opioid medication and most not having addiction issues.

Their argument simply doesn't work. In the 1990’s, the first decade of “massive” opioid prescribing that media outlets love to cite, there was no similar increase in complications caused by the number of “highly addictive” pills being prescribed. Then we had the 2008 financial meltdown, society changed, drug addiction became a prominent issue, and suddenly people were dying from too many pills.

Finally, the artificial breakdown of “cancer” pain vs. “non-cancer” pain is complete nonsense and always has been. The final common denominator of pain is pain, and cancer is merely one of many etiologies that can cause it.

Incidentally, the word “cancer” is pretty meaningless, especially to a pathologist like me. Large numbers of physicians and virtually all lay people have little understanding of the pathophysiologic processes pathologists are trained to understand.  Most things called “cancer” aren’t chronically painful and many autoimmune diseases can be much more painful than cancer.

Ironically, as cancer treatments have become better (such as those for breast cancer) and with longer survival times, many cancer patients are developing chronic pain conditions that have nothing to do with their cancer.

Do they get special treatment even if they have a good long-term prognosis?

Richard Oberg, MD, is disabled by psoriatic arthritis and no longer practices medicine. Dr. Oberg receives no funding from pharmaceutical manufacturers. 

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.

Tennessee Pain Clinics to Stop Using Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

One of the largest healthcare systems in Tennessee will no longer prescribe long term opioid pain medication to patients at two of its pain management clinics.

The move is the latest fallout from the prescribing guidelines released last month by the Centers for Disease for Prevention (CDC), which discourage the use of opioids for treating chronic pain. Although the CDC guidelines are voluntary and meant only for primary care physicians, many doctors around the country are adopting them and either weaning their patients off opioids or cutting them off entirely.

"This change was considered for several months in response to changing regulations and increasing national opiate addiction rates, and we began notifying physicians and patients of this decision in early April," Jerry Askew, Tennova Healthcare’s vice president of external relations said in a statement.

Tennova Healthcare is managed by the Sisters of Mercy, an organization of Roman Catholic nuns. Tennova operates a chain of 17 hospitals in Tennessee, but its new opioid policy only applies to patients at two pain clinics affiliated with Tennova hospitals in Knoxville and Turkey Creek.  

“After 30 days of your receipt of this letter, we no longer plan to provide long-term opiate pain medication to our patients,” Tennova said in a letter to patients.

“While pain medication therapy is widely used, non-opiate alternatives can be equally effective and can be generally safer for the patients who use them. The Center in Knoxville will continue to provide effective and compassionate treatment with non-opiate options including non-opioid pain medications, interventional procedures such as injections and radiofrequency ablations; referral to neurology and spine specialists; physical and aquatic therapy; weight loss strategies; acupuncture; massage therapy; and lifestyle counseling programs.”

But many of those alternative treatments do not work and are not covered by insurance, according to a recent survey of over 2,000 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation. Three out of four patients said over-the-counter pain relievers did not help them at all and over half said non-opioid prescription drugs like Lyrica and Cymbalta are also ineffective.   

Tennessee has one of the highest rates of opioid abuse in the country. The state took a series of steps last year to limit opioid prescribing, such as requiring pharmacies to limit opioids to a 30 day supply and requiring doctors at pain clinics to regularly give patients urine drug tests.

"The bottom line is that fewer opioid prescriptions are being written and fewer Tennesseans are experiencing the downside and disastrous consequences of a painkiller addiction," said Douglas Varney, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. "We are succeeding in reducing the number of prescriptions being written. We have helped more people into treatment and recovery and rallied a new generation of Tennesseans to live a life free of addiction."

But patient advocates say the crackdown on painkillers is unfairly focused on pain sufferers, not on the addicts who abuse opioid medication.

“I am seeing literally hundreds of reports from people who are being denied renewal of opioid meds which work well for them and are frequently the only medical treatments that give them any quality of life. Doctors are giving up their pain management practices for fear of prosecution by the DEA,” said Richard Lawhern, PhD, who became an advocate after his wife developed trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder.

“I am convinced that the CDC guidelines are creating what we will later recognize to be a wave of patient suicides due to resurgent pain and hopelessness, as well as a surge in patients seeking out street drugs because they cannot function without pain relief and are being forced by their doctors to do so.”

In recent weeks, at least 14 people died and dozens were hospitalized in California after ingesting counterfeit pain medication made with illicit fentanyl, a powerful and deadly analgesic. Some of the victims were pain patients. Fake pain pills are being sold by dealers in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas, and have also been intercepted at the California-Mexico border.