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.