Opioid Commission Member Calls Panel a ‘Charade’

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Trump Administration and Congress have so neglected the country’s opioid crisis that they have turned the work of the president's opioid commission into a "charade" and a "sham," according to one panel member.

In a wide ranging interview with CNN, former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy lamented a lack of focus and funding the opioid crisis has received since President Trump declared the overdose and addiction epidemic a national public health emergency last October.

"This and the administration's other efforts to address the epidemic are tantamount to reshuffling chairs on the Titanic," said Kennedy.

"The emergency declaration has accomplished little because there's no funding behind it. You can't expect to stem the tide of a public health crisis that is claiming over 64,000 lives per year without putting your money where your mouth is."

PATRICK KENNEDY

PATRICK KENNEDY

Without funding and resources, Kennedy said he believes the opioid commission's work had become a charade.

"I do. I honestly do. It means nothing if it has no funding to push it forward.... this thing's a charade,”” he told CNN. "I have to be true to the way I feel. This is essentially a sham."

President Trump appointed the bipartisan panel in March to give him a list of recommendations to combat drug addiction and the overdose crisis. 

COMMISSION on combating drug abuse and the opioid crisis

COMMISSION on combating drug abuse and the opioid crisis

After a series of public hearings, the commission released its final report in November, an ambitious list of over four dozen recommendations aimed at treating addiction, preventing overdoses, and further restrictions on opioid prescribing.

But since the report’s release, little money has been set aside by Congress or the administration to implement the panel’s recommendations, except to increase border security and detect illegal drugs.

Last week President Trump proposed cutting the budget of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy – which oversaw the opioid commission’s work -- by 95 percent.  After a year in office, the president has yet to appoint a permanent director for the office, which currently has a 24-year old deputy chief of staff fresh out of college with no prior experience in management or drug control policy.

"Everyone is willing to tolerate the intolerable -- and not do anything about it," said Kennedy, who is recovering from alcohol and opioid addiction, and is a prominent mental health advocate.

“I'm as cynical as I've ever been about this stuff,” he said. “We've got a human addiction tsunami, and we need all hands on deck."

Bertha Madras, another member of the opioid commission, told CNN the panel has never received any direct feedback from Trump about its work. But she praised the selection of presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway as the key point person for the administration in dealing with the opioid crisis.

"That is really a very significant issue, bringing the implementation directly into the White House, as opposed to having intra-agency meetings," said Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School. "Having been in government 10 years ago or so, I know how difficult it is to be able to generate change without having executive leadership behind you."

When asked by CNN about Kennedy's critique, she praised him for the "passion and depth he brings to the problem," but said it was premature for her to comment until she sees how much money is eventually allocated for the opioid crisis.

Trump Commission Seeks More Limits on Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

President Trump’s opioid commission released its final report Wednesday, an ambitious list of over four dozen recommendations aimed at treating addiction, preventing overdoses, and further restrictions on opioid prescribing.   

“This crisis can be fought with effective medical education, voluntary or involuntary changes in prescribing practices, and a strong regulatory and enforcement environment,” the commission said in its report.

The president established the commission in March to give him a list of recommendations to combat drug addiction and the overdose crisis. 

“Our people are dying. One hundred seventy-five people a day, every day, are dying in the United States from this epidemic,” said commission chairman Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, one of five politicians who served on the six member panel.

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“If a terrorist organization was killing 175 Americans every day on American soil, what would you be willing to pay to make it stop? I think we’d be willing to do anything and everything to make it stop. And that’s the way we now need to see this, because this is an attack from within. We are killing ourselves.”

The commission’s 131-page report did not spell out how much money would be needed to implement the panel’s wish list of 56 recommendations.

Chief among them was to get drug makers and the National Institutes of Health to work together developing new non-opioid painkillers and addiction treatment medications.

“It is inexcusable that the major pharmaceutical companies in this country have stood on the sidelines during this crisis. And they have,” said Christie.

New Prescribing Guideline to Supplement CDC's

The commission is also recommending that a new set of guidelines for opioid prescribing be developed to “supplement” the guideline released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  It was not immediately clear if the new guidelines would replace, weaken or strengthen the CDC’s recommendations, or simply expand their use throughout the healthcare system.

“An updated set of guidelines for prescription pain medications should be established by an expert committee composed of various specialty practices to supplement the CDC guideline that are specifically targeted to primary care physicians,” the report says.

The commission recommended that federal regulators require patients to give informed consent about the risks and alternatives to opioid painkillers before the medication is prescribed to them. The panel also called for a new “national curriculum and standard of care” for opioid prescribers, and that pharmacists be trained to recognize and deny “inappropriate prescriptions.”

The commission urged the federal government to work with states to improve the toxicology data on overdose deaths by developing uniform forensic drug testing. Critics say the current data now being used by federal agencies is flawed or cherry-picked. 

“We do not have sufficiently accurate and systematic data from medical examiners around the country to determine overdose deaths, both in their cause and the actual number of deaths,” the report says.

No Limit on Opioid Supply for Acute Pain

The commission did not recommend that supply limits be placed on opioid prescriptions for short term pain, as many expected. Several states have already enacted 5 or 7-day limits on opioids for acute pain. The panel also did not endorse the development of marijuana-based medications, which many pain sufferers are now using as an alternative to opioids.

Most of the commission’s other recommendations deal with cracking down on drug traffickers and the illicit drug market, expanding the drug court system, and increasing access to addiction treatment.

Gov. Christie refuted criticism of President Trump for declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency, instead of a national emergency. Only $57,000 in federal funding is currently set aside to deal with a public health emergency.

“The president did exactly what I asked him to. I wanted this to be a public health emergency because I wanted HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) to administer the funds, not FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). No offense to FEMA. They’re busy with some other things and it’s not there area of expertise,” Christie said.

“Now it’s incumbent upon Congress to step up and put money in the public health emergency fund, so the president can utilize that. And that should happen without delay in the view of the commission.”

In addition to Christie, commission members include Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, and Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman.

In its fifth and final hearing, the commission heard testimony from several people who lost loved ones to opioid addiction and overdose. The panel never asked for or received testimony from pain sufferers, patient advocates or pain management physicians.

Trump: Overdose Crisis a ‘Public Health Emergency’

By Pat Anson, Editor

President Trump today declared the overdose crisis a nationwide “public health emergency,” a legal designation that falls well short of the national emergency sought by his own opioid commission.

The difference between the two is significant. Under a national emergency, the Trump administration could immediately access funds already set aside for disaster and emergency relief. There is little funding currently available -- only about $57,000 -- to pay for a public health emergency.

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Despite the lack of funding, President Trump pledged his administration would act swiftly to end an overdose crisis that he said was killing 7 Americans every hour.

“Nobody has seen anything like what's going on now. As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue.  It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction,” Trump said.

“That is why, effective today, my administration is officially declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency under federal law, and why I am directing all executive agencies to use every appropriate emergency authority to fight the opioid crisis.  This marks a critical step in confronting the extraordinary challenge that we face.”

The president said he was awaiting a final report and recommendations from the White House opioid commission, which is expected next week. An interim report by the commission in July strongly urged the president to declare a national emergency.  

Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the Executive Branch even further to deal with this loss of life,” the report said. “You, Mr. President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately.”

Soon after the interim report was released, the president said he would declare a national emergency, but the White House never got around to actually declaring one -- amid reports of division in the administration about what should be done and how to pay for it.

Nearly $1 billion in federal funding to pay for addiction treatment was authorized by Congress in the final weeks of the Obama administration.

The National Safety Council released a statement saying the president’s declaration was “vague at a time when a clear path forward is critical.”

“The federal response must include adequate funding for implementing other evidence-based strategies as well, a move the president himself said is necessary,” the statement said.

Also expressing disappointment was Andrew Kolodny, MD, a psychiatrist and researcher at Brandeis University, who is the founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group.

"Everything that was mentioned today sounds helpful, but mentioning a few helpful items is not a plan," Kolodny told Time Magazine.

Koldony, who is the former chief medical officer of Phoenix House, said a massive appropriation of $60 billion to subsidize the addiction treatment industry would be needed over the next decade.

The number of people seeking treatment for abuse of pain medication has actually been in decline for years. According to a recent DEA report, there were 128,175 admissions to publicly-funded treatment facilities for painkiller abuse in 2014, a decrease of about 32 percent since 2011.

‘Truly Evil’ Painkiller

President Trump outlined a number of steps his administration has taken or will take to combat opioid abuse. That includes filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for their marketing of opioid pain medication, something many states are already doing.

“I will be looking at the potential of the federal government bringing major lawsuits against bad actors.  What they have and what they're doing to our people is unheard of.  We will be bringing some very major lawsuits against people and against companies that are hurting our people.  And that will start taking place pretty soon,” he warned. 

President Trump said one opioid painkiller was “truly evil” and should be taken off the market immediately because it had a high risk of abuse. That was apparently a reference to Opana ER, an extended released opioid that Endo International agreed to stop selling in July.

The president also praised CVS Health for its plan to limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain to 7-days’ supply and the CDC for launching a public awareness campaign that "put a face" on opioid abuse.    

Insurers Promise More Cuts in Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than two weeks before its final report is due, President Trump’s opioid commission held its fourth and final public meeting Friday – hearing testimony from top government officials and insurance industry executives about the nation’s worsening overdose crisis.

“Insurance companies are going to be a very, very important part of whether we will be able to stem the tide here or whether we’re not,” said commission chairman Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

It was clear from their testimony that many insurers are planning to tighten access to prescription opioids even more than they already have.

Aetna’s chief medical officer told the commission the insurance giant was planning to reduce “inappropriate opioid prescribing” to its members by 50 percent within the next five years.  He did not explain what would be considered inappropriate.

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Aetna has already sent warning letters to hundreds of physicians and dentists identified as “super-prescribers,” urging them to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions they write.

“We’re now re-running our analysis and planning more aggressive interventions for those providers who haven’t improved their opioid prescribing habits over the past several months,” said Harold Paz, MD.  

The chief medical officer of Cigna said his company was close to achieving a 25 percent reduction in coverage of opioid prescriptions, a priority it set last year.

“That’s only the first of our goals,” said Alan Muney, MD.

Insurer Harvard Pilgrim said its coverage of opioid prescriptions has declined by over 20 percent since 2014.

“That’s not enough.  This feels like a balloon where you tap on one end and it comes out somewhere else. So it doesn’t mean we’re even close to solving this,” said Michael Sherman, MD, chief medical officer of Harvard Pilgrim.

Insurers clearly have the ear of the federal government when it comes to opioids. As PNN has reported, an obscure federal advisory group composed of insurers, law enforcement, and federal and state regulators has discussed eliminating opioid prescriptions for acute pain, as well as paying doctors not to prescribe opioids.

The Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership also wants access to the “personally identifiable and protected health information” of 57 million Medicare beneficiaries to see if they are abusing opioids.

Reducing Opioids a ‘Win-Win’

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said reducing opioid prescriptions was important to get unemployed Americans back into the workforce. He cited a recent study that found that about a third of unemployed men aged 25 to 54 were using prescription painkillers.   

“Reducing the amount of opioids is a win-win across the board. It’s a win for the individual who doesn’t want to get hooked,” Acosta said. “It’s a win for the insurance companies who don’t want to be paying for medicines that people don’t need. And it’s a win for the American workforce, because if we can get people back to work and paying taxes and participating fully, that’s a win for them and it’s a win for the country.”

Acosta cited no studies that might indicate how many Americans currently taking opioids would become unemployed or disabled if their pain medication was reduced or taken away. 

No pain patients, patient advocates or experts in pain management were asked to appear before the commission. No one from the pain community has testified during any of the commission’s public meetings, although thousands have submitted written comments.

An interim report released by the opioid commission in July focused on expanding access to addiction treatment and developing new ways of treating pain without opioids. Since then, the commission has increasingly focused on limiting opioid prescriptions. The final report from the commission is expected November 1.

The interim report also strongly urged President Trump to declare a national emergency to speed up efforts to combat the overdose crisis, something he has yet to do.  “We’re going to be doing it in the next week,” Trump told reporters on Monday.  However, there appears to be little consensus in the administration about what actions to take after an emergency is declared or how to pay for them.

"Everyone wants opioids to be a priority, but there's a lot of resistance to calling it an emergency," a senior administration official told Politico.

Drug Makers Support 7-Day Limit on Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

A leading organization of pharmaceutical companies announced today its support for a 7-day limit on opioid prescriptions for acute pain.  

The announcement -- made during a meeting of President Trump’s opioid commission – marks a significant shift for the industry and is likely to speed up efforts to have limits imposed nationwide on opioid medication for short-term pain.

“PhRMA is announcing for the first time our support to limit the supply of opioids to 7 days for acute pain management. Too often, individuals receive a 30-day supply of opioid medicines for minor treatments for short-term pain,” said Stephen Ubl, President and CEO of PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.  

“Overprescribing and dispensing can lead to patients taking opioids longer than necessary and excess pills falling into the wrong hands.”

PhRMA is a trade organization that represents over 3 dozen pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Bayer, Allergan, Bristol-Myer Squibb, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Teva, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, and Purdue Pharma.

“Our announcement is candidly an unprecedented step for the industry. We’ve always supported physician autonomy and the preservation of the physician-patient relationship, but as you know, given the scope of this (opioid) crisis,we believe this is the right thing to do,” Ubl said.

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“I want to thank you and the industry for stepping forward," said commission chairman Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. “This is a prevention measure… to limit the number of drugs that are out there for improper diversion and to make sure that we don’t inadvertently turn people into addicts by giving 30, 60, 90 pills the first time. And so the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is willing to step up and acknowledge that there is something that needs to be done is an important first step.”

New Jersey, Ohio, New York and several other states have already implemented or are considering laws to limit the number of days opioids can be prescribed and dispensed for acute, short-term pain. This week Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that he would support legislation for a 3-day limit on opioids for acute pain in his state. Strict conditions would have to be met to get a 7-day supply.   

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year would require doctors nationwide to limit the initial supply of opioids for acute pain to seven days, a prescription that could not be renewed.  The bill by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, but has gone no further.

CVS Health announced last week that it would limit opioid medication for acute pain to 7 days in all of its pharmacies nationwide, starting February 1.

CVS will also limit opioid doses for both acute and chronic pain to 90mg morphine equivalent units, and patients would be required to try immediate release formulations before using extended release opioids.

 

‘Moonshot’ Needed for New Pain Treatments

Today’s meeting of President Trump’s opioid commission focused largely on expanding access to addiction treatment and developing new ways of treating chronic pain without the use of opioid medication. During the two-hour meeting, there was hardly any mention of illegal opioids or the scourge of heroin and illicit fentanyl now sweeping the country.

"Our nation needs a moonshot commitment to the development of non-opioid pain treatments. We need new therapies and we need them fast," said Jim Campbell, MD, President of Centrexion Therapeutics. "The abuse of opioids costs lives, but the other equally important issue is the problem of untreated pain. Untreated pain leads to lost work, depression, lack of sleep, social withdrawal and may even lead to suicide."

Commission member Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman in recovery from addiction, said the problems of pain, addiction, depression and suicide are all intertwined, and need better advocacy.

“Clearly, depression is rampant. The opioid crisis was driven by a depression crisis. And while we’re talking about the opioid crisis and overdose deaths, suicide is getting right up there, to the height of the AIDS epidemic itself,” said Kennedy. “Because these illnesses are so stigmatized, the advocacy is really anemic. There’s no one out there shaking the trees as if this were HIV and AIDS, like we saw in those crises.”

To watch a replay of the commission meeting, click here.

Trump Opioid Commission Delays Final Report

By Pat Anson, Editor

The chairman of President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has asked for – and apparently been granted – a one month delay in releasing the panel’s final report.

In a letter posted on the White House website, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the commission’s “research and policy development are still in progress,” and that he was extending the deadline from October 1 to November 1.

Christie said the opioid commission would hold its third public hearing September 27 at the White House. A notice published in the Federal Register indicates the meeting will focus on pain management and the diversion of opioid pain medication.

“The meeting will consist of statements to the Commission from invited government, nonprofit, and business organizations regarding Innovative Pain Management and Prevention Measures for Diversion followed by discussion of the issues raised,” the statement says. No list of attendees is included.

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Christie’s letter also says the opioid commission will visit an Ohio medical center to learn about “innovative pain management strategies” and will meet in New Jersey with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry “to talk about partnership opportunities with the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.”

Until now the focus of the opioid commission has been on treating opioid addiction. An interim report released in July recommends increased access to addiction treatment, mandatory education for prescribers on the risks and benefits of opioid medication, and increased efforts to detect and stop the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country. There are no specific recommendations aimed at reducing access to prescription opioids or providing different forms of pain management.

Bondi Joins Commission

Another possible sign of a shift in the commission’s direction is the recent appointment of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to the panel. Bondi is now listed as member of the commission on the White House website,  although there has been no official announcement by the Trump administration. She is the fifth politician appointed to the six member panel.

Bondi played a prominent in shutting down on Florida’s pill mills several years ago, but critics say she has been slow to acknowledge that the opioid crisis has shifted away from prescription painkillers to street drugs like heroin and illicit fentanyl. Many pain patients in Florida still have trouble finding pharmacies willing to fill their opioid prescriptions.

Bondi recently joined other state attorneys general in asking pharmaceutical companies for information about their marketing, production and distribution of opioids.

“Florida citizens continue to become addicted to opioids and die daily -- meanwhile, prescription drug manufacturers, distributors and the medical profession all point fingers at each other as the cause of this national crisis,” Bondi said in a statement. “This far-reaching multistate investigation is designed to get the answers we need as quickly as possible. The industry must do the right thing. If they do not, we are prepared to litigate.”

Bondi also recently joined the National Association of Attorneys General in asking the insurance industry to do more to reduce opioid prescriptions and combat opioid abuse.

“Insurance companies can play an important role in reducing opioid prescriptions and making it easier for patients to access other forms of pain management treatment. Indeed, simply asking providers to consider providing alternative treatments is impractical in the absence of a supporting incentive structure,” the attorneys general said in a letter to an insurance industry trade group.

“Insurance companies thus are in a position to make a very positive impact in the way that providers treat patients with chronic pain.”

In addition to Bondi and Christie, opioid commission members include Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, and Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman.

The Trump administration has still not officially declared that the opioid crisis is a national emergency – something the President said he would do in August.  

Pam Bondi to Join Trump Opioid Commission

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than three weeks before its final report is due, President Trump’s opioid commission is getting a new member --   Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Bondi is a longtime supporter of the president, served as a member of his transition team, and was once rumored to be the next head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. There was speculation back in March that Bondi would be named to the opioid commission, but it was not until last week that the White House confirmed it was President Trump's "intent to appoint" Bondi to the panel, which currently has five members.

Curiously, Bondi’s office blamed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the chair of the opioid commission, for the six month delay in getting her on board. Both Bondi and Christie are lame ducks serving out their final months in elected office.

“The President always intended for the Attorney General to be on the Commission – however, Governor Christie choose (sic) to begin the Commission with only himself and four others,” Whitney Ray, Bondi’s spokesman, said in an email.

“The announcement (of Bondi's appointment) is protocol before the Executive Order is signed next week. The Attorney General will continue to work with President Trump, General Kelly, Kellyanne Conway and other leaders to combat the national opioid epidemic.“

Bondi's spokesman also reportedly said that the October 1 deadline for the commission to release its final report would be extended. No such announcement has been made and the White House website still doesn’t list Bondi as a commission member.

FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL PAM BONDI

FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL PAM BONDI

The Trump administration has also yet to issue an official declaration that the opioid crisis is a national emergency – something the President said he would do over a month ago.  

"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I am saying, officially right now, it is an emergency. It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,” Trump said on August 10.

Bondi played a prominent in shutting down Florida’s pill mills several years ago, but critics say she has been slow to acknowledge that the opioid crisis has shifted away from prescription painkillers to heroin and illicit fentanyl.

“The problem is Bondi isn't doing enough about the heroin epidemic,” the Miami Sun Sentinel said in an editorial.  “Considering that Bondi was once touted as a potential Trump drug czar — and infamously failed to investigate Trump University after receiving a major donation from Trump — it's no surprise that she was named to the commission. But she's still living off her reputation from the pill mill crack down.

“In fact, if you Google Bondi and heroin, by far the most you'll read about is when she slammed a drug dealer for stamping Trump's name on a batch of heroin. You won't find any solutions to our crisis.”

In a recent interview with WMBB-TV, Bondi warned that drug dealers were putting heroin and illicit fentanyl into counterfeit medications.

"It's a national epidemic and it truly affects everyone, and parents need to really warn their kids, their teens, adults need to know, never take a pill from someone you don't know, even if they say it is a Tylenol, an Advil or an aspirin. Don't take anything from someone who you don't know," said Bondi.

The initial focus of Trump's opioid commission has been on educating, preventing and treating opioid addiction. An interim report released by the commission in July recommends increased access to addiction treatment, mandatory education for prescribers on the risks and benefits of opioids, and increased efforts to detect and stop the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country.

There are no specific recommendations aimed at reducing access to prescription opioids, although they could be added to the commission’s final report.

In addition to Gov. Christie, commission members include Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Bertha Madras, PhD, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, and Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman. No pain patients, pain management experts or practicing physicians were appointed to the panel.