Opioid Hysteria and the Demonizing of Dsuvia

By John Burke, Guest Columnist

Recently the FDA approved a new sublingual formulation of sufentanil -- called Dsuvia -- for the management of moderate to severe acute pain in hospital-like settings. This would include surgical centers and emergency departments.

When the FDA announced this approval, several so-called experts claimed that Dsuvia – which is a potent opioid – would worsen the already out of control opioid problem. They said it would quickly find its way to the streets of America and kill even more of our citizens addicted to opioids. They can’t imagine why the FDA would approve such a killer drug!

Dsuvia was originally developed by AcelRx Pharmaceuticals, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense, to treat battlefield wounds. The single dose formulation is designed to enter your body and provide pain relief faster than the traditional intramuscular injections that are now standard in treating traumatic injuries.

I can only imagine the horrendous wounds that are present on the battlefield. Offering faster pain relief seems like a great option, to say the least!  

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Dsuvia will also be used in our nation’s emergency departments and other healthcare facilities to offer faster pain relief to patients who suffer traumatic injuries. The drug will not be available in retail pharmacies or for most prescribers to order up for a patient. Doctor shoppers, script scammers and others that prey on retail pharmacies will have no access to this pain reliever. Those involved in armed robberies or burglaries of retail pharmacies will also have zero access.

Who will have access to Dsuvia are healthcare employees -- nurses, doctors and other medical professionals who already have access to a whole host of opioid drugs. There is no question that Dsuvia could potentially be a target of a small group of professionals who suffer from addiction problems. However, the illegal diversion and sale of this specific medication seems less likely in healthcare facilities.

Dsuvia will be more easily identified when it is diverted due to its limited availability and usage. Addicted healthcare employees will likely opt for more commonly used opioids like morphine and hydromorphone rather than a rarely used medication that will be easily missed when diverted.

The other part of this equation, that was either not considered by critics or didn’t suit their narrative, is that diversion inside healthcare facilities virtually always involves self-addiction. This means that even if an opioid is stolen by an employee inside one of these facilities, it will rarely make it to the street and cause more deaths.  

AcelRx has already developed a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) involving RADARS, a nationwide drug abuse surveillance system, to monitor any diversion of Dsuvia and provide quarterly reports to law enforcement. In the interest of full disclosure, I am on the Scientific Advisory Board of RADARS.

Dsuvia has great potential to provide quick relief to trauma patients in a focused setting. Its diversion potential, especially to the public, is almost nil. Demonizing a drug without any real knowledge of its legal distribution and potential for diversion is irresponsible to say the least.

The drug problem in America primarily involves street drugs such as heroin, illicit fentanyl, and more recently crystal methamphetamine and cocaine. Even as the prescribing of opioids has dropped over 30% in recent years, drug deaths continued to rise. The reason is the increased supply of street drugs supplied by cartels that continue to profit from our nation’s addiction.

Put the blame where it belongs, and don’t ostracize a legitimate new pain drug that any of us might need in an emergency.

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John Burke spent nearly 50 years in drug and law enforcement in southwestern Ohio. John is a former president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and is the president and founder of the International Health Facility Diversion Association, a non-profit devoted to the issues surrounding the diversion of controlled substances from healthcare facilities.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Cutting Rx Opioid Supply Is Not Stopping Diversion

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Drug diversion is an increasingly important factor in the opioid overdose crisis. A new report from Protenus found that 18.7 million pills, valued at around $164 million, were lost due to drug diversion in the United States during the first half of 2018. This represents a vast increase over 2017, when 20.9 million pills were diverted during the entire year.

As we’ve described previously, drug diversion in the supply chain is a vast, complex and old phenomenon. And it is rapidly worsening.

According to the textbook, “Prescription Drug Diversion and Pain,” drug thefts from hospitals “have increased significantly within the past decade as street prices have climbed sharply for diverted prescription opioids and benzodiazepines.”

In other words, the steep cuts in opioid production that began in 2017 aren’t working. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions was wrong when he said, "The more a drug is diverted, the more its production should be limited." A tightening supply has actually resulted in more diversion.

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Drug diversion can be broadly divided into three categories: clinical diversion, personal diversion and industrial diversion. The first, according to Protenus, is drug diversion by healthcare workers. The second is the sale or transfer by a patient who received a legitimate prescription to a third party. And the third is everything else, from diversion by employees at manufacturing facilities to theft in distribution centers or pharmacies.

Personal diversion has gotten substantial attention in recent years. Prescription drug monitoring databases, pain agreements, and urine drug testing are all intended to help prevent such diversion.

Clinical drug diversion is a long-standing problem in healthcare that has garnered more interest recently. The bipartisan opioid bill recently passed by Congress includes a provision that allows hospice workers to destroy opioid medication that has expired or is no longer needed by a patient. The National Institutes of Health has also awarded a grant to further expand efforts to detect opioid and other drug theft in hospital systems.

Industrial diversion is less well known, but appears to be a longstanding problem. In the book “Dopesick,” journalist Beth Macy writes that as early as 2001 the DEA was investigating lax security standards at Purdue Pharma manufacturing plants after the arrest of two Purdue employees accused of trying to steal thousands of pills.

Between 2009 and 2012, over 63,000 thefts of opioids and other controlled substances were reported to the DEA. Pharmacies (66%) and hospitals (19%) accounted for the vast majority of those drug thefts.

And in 2007, an audit of CMS Medicare Part D payments identified 228,000 prescription payments with invalid prescriber identifications for Schedule II drugs.

In other words, tens of thousands of drug thefts and hundreds of thousands of fraudulent prescriptions are occurring annually, leading to millions of prescription pills entering the illegal market. This may help explain how OxyContin entered the black market so quickly and completely.

As Beth Macy writes: “The town pharmacist on the other line was incredulous: “Man, we only got it a month or two ago. And you’re telling me it’s already on the street?””

The National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and the DEA Diversion Control Division are attempting to address industrial diversion. But available evidence suggests there is much more work needed to secure the entire prescription drug supply chain.

As the opioid overdose crisis continues to evolve toward poly-drug substance abuse, drug diversion will play an increasingly significant role in the illegal supply of prescription pharmaceuticals unless the entire supply chain is secured. This will require far more than the easy tasks of checking a prescription database or legislating pill counts. The hard part of reducing drug diversion remains to be done.

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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.

Lessons from ‘Prescription Drug Diversion and Pain’

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The new book "Prescription Drug Diversion and Pain" is a textbook treatment of pain management and drug policy amid the opioid crisis. Written and edited by experts, the book is a scholarly, rigorous and evenhanded examination of the benefits and burdens of opioid pain medication.

Each chapter is written by specialists who address a particular aspect of the opioid crisis, with extensive footnotes justifying every statistic and claim. Much of that data, however, is admittedly flawed.

“As we show in this book, essential data about opioid abuse, morbidity, and mortality are lacking and what little data we have are derived from flawed and obsolete government databases,” the authors note in the preface.

“Yet, these resources are relied upon for public policy development, resource allocation, and lawmaking. In the absence of sound data, ingrained cultural feelings about addiction can become a powerful driver of attitudes, even among pain specialists who, despite their professional training and experience, may be influenced by such bias in their prescribing practices.”

The first chapters look at the history, regulation and monitoring of opioid prescriptions, and attempts to defuse the bias often associated with them:

"These medications are neither good nor bad absent context, despite the public tendency to oversimplify their use and mischaracterize their utility."

The origins of the opioid crisis are given due consideration. Rising rates of opioid prescribing are recognized as one factor, but drug diversion in the supply chain is also acknowledged:

“There is evidence that thefts from hospital and pharmacy drug supplies, as well as in-transit thefts from manufacturers and distributors, may also be a significant source of diverted opioids.”

Close attention is given to the issue of overprescribing and doctors who are “careless, corrupt, and compromised by impairment.”

But the book is also critical of the theory – expounded by the CDC opioid guideline – that reducing the number of prescriptions will help solve the opioid crisis:

“One might expect… that a decline in sales would produce a corresponding decline in overdose deaths. This has not occurred, casting doubt on the CDC’s original hypothesis. Several explanations are possible for this and may involve the recent increase in the use of street opioids like heroin and fentanyl analogs.

“Government databases for tracking nonmedical drug use and related health consequences are obsolete and lack the sensitivity to show which drugs, by chemical name and product formulation, licit or illicit, are responsible for the increasing overdose deaths.”

Later chapters explore opioid prescribing in detail and echo many of the themes of the CDC guideline:

“Not every patient who complains of pain needs an opioid or is a candidate for opioid therapy. Opioids should be prescribed only when the benefit outweighs the risks. Functional improvement should be a primary goal, along with improved sleep and mood, regardless of the therapy used.”

Indeed, the book goes to great lengths to discuss the risks associated with long-term opioid therapy, not just addiction but endocrinopathy, sedation, delirium, and bone loss. Many alternatives, from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and tricyclic antidepressants to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are also described in detail.

The book laments the loss of interdisciplinary pain management programs, starting in the 1980s. These programs provided “a safer and clinically more effective alternative to opioids [and] have also been empirically associated with reducing patients’ reliance on opioids.” But the programs were costly to insurers and not profitable for medical facilities. Their disappearance “should be considered a contributory factor in the crisis of diversion and abuse and the associated destruction of lives.”

The book challenges areas of pain management and prescribing practice. A whole chapter is given over to the subject of urine drug testing, which is described as “an important element of an overall opioid-compliance program.” Because misuse of prescription drugs and use of illicit drugs is not uncommon among chronic pain patients, such monitoring is recommended. But the book cautions: “Other clinical indicators are needed before determining if a patient is nonadherent.”

The book concludes with its key idea, that there are no easy solutions:

"Given the complexity of the practice of pain management, the ‘opioid crisis’ cannot be solved, nor can conditions for pain patients be improved, using only simple and direct approaches: one medication, one regulatory policy, one law, or one injection will not be the answer for our chronic pain patients.

The government’s crackdown on drug companies and others in the pharmaceutical industry has had a negligible effect on reducing the morbidity and mortality resulting from the abuse of opioids.”

In other words, the opioid crisis and pain management are sufficiently complex that simple approaches are bound to fail. We need smart approaches. This book does an excellent job outlining the current state of knowledge to inform such approaches.

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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.

Rescheduling Hydrocodone May Have Increased Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Four years ago that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ordered the rescheduling of hydrocodone from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II.  The move was intended to reduce the diversion and abuse of hydrocodone, which at one time was the most widely prescribed drug in the United States.

It turns out the rescheduling may have had the unintended effect of increasing the diversion and abuse of opioid medication by elderly Americans.

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare beneficiaries declined after the rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalization of elderly patients increased for those who did not have a prescription for opioids.

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"The 2014 federal hydrocodone rescheduling policy was associated with decreased opiate use among the elderly," said lead author Yong-Fang Kuo, PhD, a professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at UTMB.

"However, we also observed a 24 percent increase in opioid-related hospitalizations in Medicare patients without documented opioid prescriptions, which may represent an increase in illegal use."

Kuo and her colleagues say Medicare beneficiaries are among the largest consumers of prescription opioids. They speculated that opioid abuse by the elderly may be a coping mechanism to deal with poor health and depression, and that opioid diversion may be a sign of drug dealing.

“An economic purpose may relate to monetary gains from the diversion and sale to others,” Kuo wrote. “It is important for prescribers to understand that their elderly Medicare beneficiaries might be obtaining opioids from sources that are not documented in their medical records. There is a need for additional research on why, where, and how these Medicare enrollees are obtaining opioids.”

The UTMB research team analyzed a large sample of Medicare Part D enrollment and claims data from 2012 through 2015. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The reclassification of hydrocodone to a Schedule II controlled substance limited patients to an initial 90-day supply and required them to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a 30-day refill. Prescriptions for Schedule II drugs also cannot be phoned or faxed in by physicians.

In 2012, over 135 million prescriptions were written in the U.S. for hydrocodone products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.  That fell to 90 million prescriptions by 2016.

Overall Opioid Prescribing Down

Hydrocodone isn't the only opioid medication to see steep declines in prescribing. The volume of opioid prescriptions filled last year dropped by 12 percent, the largest decline in 25 years according to a new report by the IQVIA Institute.  Opioid prescriptions have been falling since 2011, while dispensing of addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone have risen sharply.

“The U.S. opioid epidemic is one of the most challenging public health crises we face as a nation," said Murray Aitken, IQVIA senior vice president and executive director of the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

“Our research and analytics revealed that 2017 saw new therapy starts for prescription opioids in pain management decline nearly 8 percent, with a near doubling of medication-assisted therapies (MATs) for opioid use dependence to 82,000 prescriptions per month. This suggests that healthcare professionals are prescribing opioids less often for pain treatment, but they are actively prescribing MATs to address opioid addiction."

All 50 states and Washington DC had declines in opioid prescribing of 5 percent or more in 2017, with some of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis -- like West Virginia and Pennsylvania --  showing declines of over 10 percent. Nevertheless, the number of Americans overdosing continues to rise due to increased use of black market drugs like illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, which now account for about two-thirds of all drug deaths.

Painkillers Stolen from Dying Patients

By Melissa Bailey, Kaiser Health News

Nothing seemed to help the patient — and hospice staff didn’t know why.

They sent home more painkillers for weeks. But the elderly woman, who had severe dementia and incurable breast cancer, kept calling out in pain.

The answer came when the woman’s daughter, who was taking care of her at home, showed up in the emergency room with a life-threatening overdose of morphine and oxycodone. It turned out she was high on her mother’s medications, stolen from the hospice-issued stash.

Dr. Leslie Blackhall handled that case and two others at the University of Virginia’s palliative care clinic, and uncovered a wider problem: As more people die at home on hospice, some of the powerful, addictive drugs they are prescribed are ending up in the wrong hands.

Hospices have largely been exempt from the national crackdown on opioid prescriptions because dying people may need high doses of opioids. But as the nation’s opioid epidemic continues, some experts say hospices aren’t doing enough to identify families and staff who might be stealing pills.

And now, amid urgent cries for action over rising overdose deaths, several states have passed laws giving hospice staff the power to destroy leftover pills after patients die.

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Blackhall first sounded the alarm about drug diversion in 2013, when she found that most Virginia hospices she surveyed didn’t have mandatory training and policies on the misuse and theft of drugs. Her study spurred the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care to create new guidelines, and prompted national discussion.

Most hospice patients receive care in the place they call home. These settings can be hard to monitor, but a Kaiser Health News review of government inspection records sheds light on what can go wrong. According to these reports:

  • In Mobile, Ala., a hospice nurse found a man at home in tears, holding his abdomen, complaining of pain at the top of a 10-point scale. The patient was dying of cancer, and his neighbors were stealing his opioid painkillers, day after day.
  • In Monroe, Mich., parents kept “losing” medications for a child dying at home of brain cancer, including a bottle of the painkiller methadone.
  • In Clinton, Mo., a woman at home on hospice began vomiting from anxiety from a tense family conflict: Her son had to physically fight off her daughter, who was stealing her medications. Her son implored the hospice to move his mom to a nursing home to escape the situation.

In other cases, paid caregivers or hospice workers, who work largely unsupervised in the home, steal patients’ pills. In June, a former hospice nurse in Albuquerque, N.M., pleaded guilty to diverting oxycodone pills first by recommending prescriptions for hospice patients who didn’t need them and then intercepting the packages with the intention of selling the drugs herself.

Hospice, available to patients who are expected to die within six months, is seeing a dramatic rise in enrollment as more patients choose to focus on comfort, instead of a cure, at the end of life.

The fast-growing industry serves more than 1.6 million people a year. Most of hospice care is covered by Medicare, which pays for hospices to send nurses, aides, social workers and chaplains, as well as hospital beds, oxygen machines and medications to the home.

There’s no national data on how frequently these medications go missing. But “problems related to abuse of, diversion of or addiction to prescription medications are very common in the hospice population, as they are in other populations,” said Dr. Joe Rotella, chief medical officer of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, a professional association for hospice workers.

“It’s an everyday problem that hospice teams address,” Rotella said. In many cases, opioid painkillers or other controlled substances are the best treatment for these patients, he said. Hospice patients, about half of whom sign up within two weeks of death, often face significant pain, shortness of breath, broken bones, or aching joints from lying in bed, he said. “These are the sickest of the sick.”

Earlier this year in Missouri, government investigators installed a hidden camera in a 95-year-old hospice patient’s kitchen to investigate suspected theft. A personal care aide was charged with stealing the patient’s hydrocodone pills, opiate painkillers, and replacing them with acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Hospice nurses in Louisiana and Massachusetts also have been charged in recent years with stealing medication from patients’ homes.

But many suspected thefts don’t get caught on hidden cameras, or even reported.

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In Oxnard, Calif., in 2015, a person claiming to be a hospice employee entered the homes of five patients and tried to steal their morphine, succeeding twice. The state cited the hospice for failing to report the incidents.

In Norwich, Vt., in 2013, a family looked for morphine to ease a dying patient’s shortness of breath. But the bottle was missing from the hospice-issued comfort care kit. The family suspected that an aide, who no longer worked in the home, had stolen the drug, but they had no proof. State inspectors cited the hospice, Bayada Home Health Care, for failing to investigate.

David Totaro, spokesman for Bayada Home Health Care, told KHN that situations like that are “very rare” at the hospice, which takes precautions, such as limiting medication supply, to prevent misuse.

There is no publicly available national data on the volume of opioids hospices prescribe.  But OnePoint Patient Care, a national hospice-focused pharmacy, estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the medications it delivers to hospice patients are controlled substances, according to Erik Jung, a vice president of pharmacy operations.

Jung said company drivers deliver medications in unmarked cars to prevent attempted robberies, which have happened on occasion.

Little Oversight of Hospice Medication

Two recent studies suggest hospice doctors and social workers across the country are not prepared to screen patients and families for drug misuse, nor to address the theft of pain medication.

For family members struggling with addiction, bottles of pills lying around the house can be hard to resist. Sarah B., a 43-year-old construction worker in Vancouver, Wash., said when her father entered hospice care at his home in Oregon, she was addicted to opioids, stemming from a hydrocodone prescription for sciatica.

After he died, hundreds of pills were left on his bedside table. She took them all, enough Norco, oxycodone and morphine to last a month.

“I have some shame about it,” said Sarah, who declined to give her full last name because of the nature of her actions.

Sarah, who was one of her father’s primary caretakers, said the hospice “didn’t talk about addiction or ask if any one of us were addicts or any of that.”

“No one gave us instructions on how to dispose of all the medications that were left,” she added.

Medicare requires hospices to establish a safe way to administer drugs to each patient — by identifying a reliable caregiver, staff member or volunteer to manage the drugs or, if need be, relocating the patient. And it requires hospices to set policies, and talk to families, about how to safely manage and dispose of medications.

But there’s little oversight: Unlike nursing homes, hospices may go years without inspection, and even when they are cited for noncompliance, they rarely face any consequence except coming up with a plan to improve.

And in most states, hospices have little control over the pills after a patient dies. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration encourages hospice staff to help families destroy leftover medications, but forbids staff from destroying the meds themselves unless allowed by state law. Leftover pills belong to the family, which has no legal obligation to destroy them or give them up.

However, some states are taking action. In the past three years, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey and South Carolina have passed laws giving hospice staff authority to destroy unused drugs after patients die. Similar bills moved forward in Illinois, Wisconsin and Georgia this year.

In Massachusetts, one of the states hit hardest by drug overdose deaths, VNA Care Hospice and Palliative Care advises families to empty leftover pills into kitty litter or coffee grounds before disposal — a common practice to prevent reuse, since flushing them down the toilet is now considered environmentally hazardous.

But families “don’t have to comply,” said VNA Care medical director Dr. Joel Bauman. “Our experience is maybe only half do. We don’t know what happens to these medications. And we have no right, really, to further inquire.”

Hospices across the country told KHN they take precautions, including counting pills when nurses visit the homes, limiting the volume of each drug delivery, giving families locked boxes for medication and giving patients random urine tests. They also said they prescribe medications that are harder to misuse, such as methadone.

Some, like VNA Care, have also started screening families of patients for history of drug addiction, and writing up agreements with families outlining the consequences if drugs go missing.

But “there’s so much moral distress” about punishing dying patients for family members’ actions, said Bauman. He said he tries to avoid doing that: “Why should we fire a patient for having inappropriate pill counts, when it may not be their fault in the first place?”

Though Blackhall helped spark a national discussion about hospice drug diversion, she said she’s also worried about restricting access to painkillers. Hospices must strike a balance, she said.

“It’s important to treat the horrible suffering that people have from cancer,” said Blackhall. But substance abuse is another form of suffering which is “horrible for anyone in the family or community that might end up getting those medications.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN), a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.