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.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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.

Opioid Prescriptions Plunge to 15-Year Low

By Pat Anson, Editor

The volume of opioid prescriptions in the United States has fallen sharply and now stand at their lowest levels since 2003, according to data released by the Food and Drug Administration.

Over 74 million metric tons of opioid analgesics were dispensed in the first six months of 2018, down more than 16 percent from the first half of 2017. Opioid prescriptions have been declining for several years, but the trend appears to be accelerating as many doctors lower doses, write fewer prescriptions or simply discharge pain patients.

“These trends seem to suggest that the policy efforts that we’ve taken are working as providers, payers and patients are collectively reducing some of their use of prescription opioid analgesic drugs,” said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a statement.



"This graph confirms the perception that many of use have, that prescribing continues to decline," said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of Academy of Integrative Pain Management. "But, the question remains --what is the effect of this decreased prescribing on people with chronic pain?

"Measures of prescribing need to be matched with measures of patient function and quality of life, especially given evidence that decreased prescribing may actually be associated with increased suicide. All this measure really tells us is that the intense pressure from legislators, regulators, and payers has had its desired effect of driving down prescribing, even it there’s no evidence that it’s done anything else helpful."

While opioid prescriptions decline, overdoses continue to rise. According to preliminary data from the CDC, nearly 49,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, over half of them due to illicit fentanyl and heroin, not prescription opioids.

“It isn’t necessarily the case that more people are suddenly switching from prescription opioids to these illicit drugs. The idea of people switching to illicit drugs isn’t new as an addiction expands, and some people have a harder time maintaining a supply of prescription drugs from doctors,” said Gottlieb. “What’s new is that more people are now switching to highly potent drugs that are far deadlier. That’s driven largely by the growing availability of the illicit fentanyls.”

Illicit fentanyl and its chemical cousins are synthetic opioids, 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. They are produced largely by clandestine drug labs in China and then smuggled into the U.S., where they are often mixed with heroin, cocaine and counterfeit drugs.  A record 1,640 pounds of fentanyl and nearly 5,500 pounds of heroin have been seized by law enforcement so far this year; likely a small fraction of what’s available on the black market.

While the Trump administration has expanded efforts to stop the distribution and sale of illicit opioids, it also remains focused on reducing the supply of prescription opioids.  The FDA plans to develop new prescribing guidelines for treating short-term, acute pain that will likely set a cap on the number of pills that can be prescribed for certain medical conditions.

No more 30-day prescriptions for a tooth extraction or an appendectomy,” said Gottlieb.

The Justice Department also recently announced plans to lower production quotas by 10% next year for six widely prescribed opioid medications. The goal of the administration is to reduce opioid prescriptions by a third in the next three years. 

“The number of opioid prescriptions is only one of many factors and may not be the most important factor contributing to the opioid crisis. In fact, the U.S. is at a 15-year low in the amount of opioid prescribed but continues to see a surge of drug overdoses,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a pain management expert and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

“Much of the effort to curb the amount of prescription opioids has contributed to more suffering by people in chronic pain and possibly the increase in suicides.  It also hasn't done anything to curb the number of overdose deaths. Rather than being focused on number of pills or amount of opioid prescribed we need to focus on what is the best and most appropriate treatment for individual patients. When that is done properly, the right amount of opioids will be prescribed.”  

CDC Head Wants Opioid Guidelines for Acute Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

When Dr. Robert Redfield was appointed as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March, he told CDC staff the opioid epidemic was “the public health crisis of our time” and pledged to “bring this epidemic to its knees.”

After three months in the job, Redfield has finally given his first media interview and provided some vague details about how he will tackle the opioid crisis. He told The Wall Street Journal that the CDC would develop opioid prescribing guidelines for short-term acute pain and use a new enhanced data system to track overdoses in hospital emergency rooms.

“We’re going to continue to expand our efforts,” Redfield said. “We’re going to be able to track this epidemic in real time, which I think is really important to be able to respond.”

The CDC has been roundly criticized in the past for how it tracked and counted opioid overdoses – erroneously mixing illicit fentanyl deaths with those linked to prescription opioids – so any improvement in that area is welcome.



But for the agency to even consider prescribing guidelines for acute pain is puzzling – considering how disastrous its guidelines have been for chronic pain. Since their botched release during a sketchy webinar in 2015, the CDC’s “voluntary” guidelines for primary care physicians have been widely adopted as mandatory by insurers, regulators and providers – who have used them to deny treatment, abandon patients, and forcibly taper many off opioid prescriptions. The DEA even targets physicians who exceed the CDC's recommended dosage for opioids. 

“I was forced tapered. How could the CDC take over my medical treatment? How is this legal? The CDC had never assessed me yet changed my pain medicine,” PNN reader Patti asks.  “I've gone from being an active woman to spending my days in bed or on the couch. I live in non-stop pain 24/7.”

Patti is not alone. In a PNN survey of over 3,100 patients last year, over 90% said the CDC guidelines have been harmful to patients and nearly half said it was harder for them to find a doctor willing to treat their pain. Ten percent don't have a doctor at all.

There are also troubling reports of patients committing suicide because their pain is so poorly treated.

"My son committed suicide 4 months after his docs took him off all pain meds," said Rick. "I knew right then the reason for his suicide. But, it goes unrecognized by doctors and other officials, and his suicide autopsy mentioned nothing about pain meds. This will continue, suicides vastly increased until post medicinal suicides (are) recognized and accounted for."

"My 70 year old mother committed suicide last month after being cut off at pain management. Although she could barely walk and was in constant pain, she was the most positive person. Something needs to be done," said Janie Jacobs.

“Wishing for it to be over is a pervasive daily thought. I have to work diligently to chase those thoughts away,” pain patient Leanne Gooch wrote in a recent guest column for PNN. “My doctors can’t or won’t treat me because my chronic pain contributed to all the addicts all over the world. I’ll admit that’s a ridiculous statement when they admit they’ve gone too far in denying me proper medical care.”   

The quality of pain care in the U.S. has gotten so bad that Human Rights Watch launched an investigation into the treatment of pain patients as a possible human rights violation.

“What kind of quality of life do I even have when I can barely move?” asks Amy, who suffers from myofascial pain and is confined to a wheelchair.  “I really want to lead a functional life and to have a family. It's not a lot to ask. I'll never have it this way, though. Please give me back some tramadol. Please allow me hydrocodone if I really need it. Please help me. Please help all of us.”

The CDC guidelines have also failed to achieve a key objective. While opioid prescribing has declined (a trend that began years before the guidelines were released), opioid overdoses have spiked higher, driven by a scourge of illegal opioids sold on the black market. Americans are now more likely to die from an overdose of illicit fentanyl than they are from pain medication.

Several states and insurers have already adopted regulations limiting the initial use of opioids for acute pain to a few days supply. The CDC has weighed in on the issue as well.

"When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed," the agency says in its chronic pain guidelines. 

According to a spokesperson, the CDC was working with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to develop a report reviewing the effectiveness of opioid and non-opioid therapies for acute pain.

"If an update to the CDC Guideline is warranted based on the scientific findings of these AHRQ efforts, CDC will undertake the scientific process to update the guideline, possibly including expanded guidance treating acute pain," Courtney Leland told PNN in an email.

Why does Dr. Redfield want to develop guidelines for acute pain? In his interview with The Wall Street Journal,  Redfield said his interest stems, in part, from a close family member’s struggle with opioid addiction.

“I think part of my understanding of the epidemic has come from seeing it not just as a public-health person and not just as a doctor,” he said. “It is something that has impacted me also at a personal level.”

The epidemic is also impacting chronic pain patients, in ways the CDC has yet to admit or acknowledge.

When Do Guidelines Become Guidelines?

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

Blaming doctors for failing to prescribe to guidelines that did not exist is the latest in the strange research coming out on the use of opioid pain medication.

That was the case for a recent study led by Dr. Tara Gomes, Dr. David Juurlink and others at the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Studies (ICES) in Toronto, Canada. Both of these authors have a long list of research reports on opioids and Juurlink was one of the central players in the development of the Canadian guidelines for prescribing opioids for non-cancer pain. Juurlink is also a board member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), which is notorious for their anti-opioid views.

This particular study, called “Clinical indications associated with opioid initiation for pain management in Ontario, Canada,” is published online in the journal Pain. Gomes and Juurlink set out to evaluate prescribing patterns for patients who are “opioid naïve” to see if their prescriptions complied with guidelines adopted in the U.S. and Canada. In many cases, they did not.

The U.S. and Canadian clinical guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic non-cancer pain suggest that doctors should avoid initiating opioids at daily doses above 50 MME,"  Gomes is quoted saying in an ICES press release.

"Our study found that nearly one-quarter of Ontarians taking an opioid for the first time received a daily dose exceeding this threshold, and for certain indications such as knee, hip and shoulder surgeries and Caesarean sections, the dose was even higher.”


Here is the problem with their work. Gomes and Juurlink looked at prescription opioid claims for over 650,000 people in Ontario from April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016 and compared them to guidelines that did not exist during the study period.

They defined as inappropriate any initial opioid dose that exceeded 50 MME (milligram morphine equivalent) or had a duration exceeding 7 days’ supply.  According to their findings, 17 percent of the opioid prescriptions were for periods longer than 7 days and almost one quarter (23.9%) were for dosages over 50 MME. This prescribing, they said, was not in line with North American guidelines.

By guidelines, they mean the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that were released on March 18, 2016 --- two weeks before the end of the study period. The U.S. guidelines have never been formally accepted in Canada, although they were used to help shape the Canadian opioid guidelines that were released in 2017, a full 13 months after the study period.

How can one say that doctors were not compliant with prescribing guidelines when those guidelines did not exist at the time they prescribed? Doctors may be very clever, but I do not know of any who are capable of abiding by guidelines that only exist in the future

Aside from the study being biased and wrong, the misleading findings were picked up and portrayed by several Canadian news outlets as another example of doctors fueling the so-called opioid crisis. The Ottawa online policy paper Ipolitics ran a story with the headline, “A quarter of prescription drugs in Ontario exceeded dosage guidelines.”

Dr. Gomes also appeared on a popular radio show in Toronto saying, “We’re not really aligned right now with the guidelines in Canada.”

I have filed a formal retraction request with Dr. Michael Schull, the CEO of ICES. Schull referred my complaint to Gomes herself, who replied via e-mail on May 17 with:

“Your point regarding the timing of the guidelines in contrast with the timeframe of our study is an important one, and one that we made sure to address through our communications related to this study. In particular, in our study, we speak to the evidence related to harm associated with opioid doses above 50MME as being a core reason why attention should be paid to the high proportion of new opioid patients who are exceeding these doses. It is not simply that these doses exceed thresholds now recommended in guidelines, but that they have been shown in the literature to be associated with considerable risk of harm. We therefore need to consider how to mitigate this harm whenever possible.”

I pointed out in my reply that neither the media reports nor the press release cautioned about the discrepancy between the study period and the release of the guidelines, and I requested a public clarification and retraction. Schull replied that you cannot retract a study just because someone disagrees with it.

This is more than a simple disagreement. You cannot compare apples to oranges as they did. Schull’s final e-mail to me was we will agree to disagree, and I should take it up with the editors of Pain. Francis Keele, the editor in chief of Pain, informed me via e-mail on May 26 that they will be looking into the matter.

Broadcaster Roy Green, who has taken up the defence of chronic pain patients in both the U.S. and Canada through his syndicated radio show, offered Gomes the opportunity to bring with her 3 medical doctors to have an on-air debate on her research with him and me. So far, she has refused to respond.

I did point out to her boss that she works at the expense of taxpayers and since she is willing to discuss her work with a journalist who knows little or nothing of the topic, she has an obligation to talk to us.

I am not holding my breath.

(Update: Mr. Ross has been informed by the editor of Pain that the Gomes study has been revised to clarify to that the CDC and Canadian opioid guidelines were not in effect during the study period.) 

Marvin Ross.jpg

Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

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.

Fewer Opioids Prescribed in Medical Marijuana States

By Pat Anson, Editor

The availability of medical marijuana has significantly reduced opioid prescribing for Medicaid and Medicare patients, according to two large studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In one study, researchers at the University of Georgia looked at Medicare Part D prescription drug data from 2010 to 2015. They found that the number of daily doses prescribed for morphine (-14%), hydrocodone (-10.5%) and fentanyl (-8.5%) declined in states with medical marijuana laws. However, daily doses for oxycodone increased (+4.4%) in those same states.

The drop in opioid prescribing was most pronounced in states that have medical marijuana dispensaries, as opposed to those that only allow home cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes.

“We found that prescriptions for hydrocodone and morphine had statistically significant negative associations with medical cannabis access via dispensaries,” wrote lead author W. David Bradford, PhD, Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia.

“Combined with previously published studies suggesting cannabis laws are associated with lower opioid mortality, these findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids.”


The second study, by researchers at the University of Kentucky, looked at Medicaid prescriptions from 2011 to 2016, and found a 5.88% decline in opioid prescribing in states with medical marijuana laws.  Opioid prescribing for Medicaid patients fell even more -- by 6.38% -- in states where the recreational use of marijuana is legal.

“These findings suggest that medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose,” wrote lead author Hefei Wen, PhD, University of Kentucky College of Public Health.

One weakness of both studies is that they did not determine if Medicaid and Medicare patients reduced their use of opioid medication because they were using cannabis.  They also only included patients that were elderly, poor or disabled. And they were conducted during a period when nationwide opioid prescribing was in decline.

A recent study by the RAND corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws experience reductions in the volume of legally prescribed opioid medication. RAND researchers believe some pain patients may be experimenting with marijuana, but their numbers are not large enough to have a significant impact on prescribing. 

"If anything, states that adopt medical marijuana laws... experience a relative increase in the legal distribution of prescription opioids," the RAND study found. "Either the patients are continuing to use their opioid pain medications in addition to marijuana, or this patient group represents a small share of the overall medical opioid using population." 

Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Heroin Overdoses in ER's Surpass Rx Opioid Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

The number of patients admitted and discharged from U.S. hospitals for abuse of opioid pain medication has declined significantly this decade, while the abuse of heroin and illicit fentanyl has surged, according to a new study that documents the shifting nature of the nation’s overdose crisis.

Researchers at Stanford University analyzed national trends in hospital inpatient and emergency department (ED) discharges for opioid abuse, dependence and poisoning from 1997 to 2014, the last year data was available.

They found that hospital admissions for overdoses from pain medication started falling in 2010, the same year that opioid prescriptions began declining.

At the same time, hospital discharge rates for heroin poisoning increased at an annual rate of over 31 percent. By 2014, heroin overdoses exceeded those from prescription opioids in emergency rooms by almost a 2 to 1 margin.

“After 2008, ED discharge rates for heroin poisoning increased more sharply than the rates for any opioid poisoning -- signaling that the scope of heroin harm is worse than previously suggested -- while discharges for prescription opioid poisoning recently began to decline in both the ED and inpatient settings,” researchers reported in the journal Health Affairs.


“While these changes could be the result of national and local policies aimed at reducing the prescribing of opioids, the expanded availability of heroin and new lethal illicit drugs, such as nonpharmaceutical fentanyl, could mean that they are being used instead of prescription opioids.”

The findings add evidence to recent public health concerns that people misusing or addicted to prescription opioids are switching to heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl because they are cheaper and easier to get.

"This suggests that the expanded availability of lethal illicit drugs are being used to replace prescription opioids in some cases," said Tina Hernandez-Boussard, PhD, associate professor of medicine, of biomedical data sciences and of surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine.

source: health affairs

source: health affairs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been reluctant to admit that efforts to reduce opioid prescribing could be backfiring, although their own statistics indicate otherwise.  Deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids overtook overdoses linked to prescription opioids in 2016, the same year the CDC released its opioid prescribing guidelines.

As PNN has reported,  the CDC last week launched a public awareness campaign to combat the abuse of prescription opioids, a marketing effort driven by surveys and focus groups that completely ignores the scourge of heroin and illicit fentanyl.

“The campaign does not include messages about heroin. Specificity is a best practice in communication, and the Rx Awareness campaign messaging focuses on the critical issue of prescription opioids. Given the broad target audience, focusing on prescription opioids avoids diluting the campaign messaging. Heroin is a related topic that also needs formative research and message testing,” the CDC explained.

The Stanford study found that discharge rates for prescription opioid poisonings declined annually by about 5 percent from 2010 to 2014, while discharge rates for heroin poisoning increased at an annual rate of 31.4 percent from 2008 to 2014. The trend has likely worsened since 2014, as heroin and illicit fentanyl are even more widely available on the black market.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that prescribing clinicians are positively reacting to the opioid crisis and therefore prescription opioids are contributing less to the overall drug epidemic," Hernandez-Boussard said. "That's the good news. The bad news is that although prescription opioid use decreased, heroin and methadone greatly increased.”

Anna Lembke, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford and a board member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), says she has no doubt many people addicted to prescription opioids have switched to using heroin or illicit fentanyl.

"My patients have told me that's exactly what they did," said Lembke. "Heroin was cheaper and easier to get."

Would You Support a Boycott of CVS?

By Pat Anson, Editor

One of the most talked about issues in the pain community over the last two weeks has been CVS Health’s announcement that its pharmacists would soon start restricting doses of opioid pain medication and limit the supply of opioids for acute pain to 7 days.

The policy only applies to customers enrolled in CVS Caremark’s pharmacy benefit management program, but it quickly triggered an online backlash from pain patients – including many who called for a boycott of CVS.


“I refuse to patronize companies that practice medicine without a license,” wrote Jeannette on PNN’s Facebook page.

“Don’t go there anymore. Hit them in their pocketbook,” wrote Lauren.

“I very rarely use a CVS and will never go there for prescriptions or anything else,” said Jackie.

“I left CVS years ago for Walgreens and I’m guessing many more will be doing so,” wrote Amanda.

"CVS has some nerve. The use of opioids, or any other drug, really, is up to the doctor and his or her patients, not a pharmacist. This is a terrible precedent, which will drive an even bigger wedge between physicians and patients,” cardiologist Arthur Kennish, MD, told the American Council on Science and Health.

The CVS boycott soon had its own hashtag on Twitter.

“Wrong way to handle, CVS! I will join the #BoycottCVS. You make it more difficult for the sick w/ no impact on the crisis,” Stephanie tweeted.

The online outrage even spilled over onto CVS’ Facebook page, where many negative posts were apparently deleted by the company.

“CVS Pharmacy, why did you take down all your Posts and comments regarding your big announcement over overriding doctor's orders and limiting patients' rights to their pain medication?” asked Lauri. “Where did they all go?”

People are so passionate about this issue that we started an online poll asking if they would support a boycott of CVS. Click here if you’d like to participate.

Would a Boycott Work?

But while there’s plenty of online enthusiasm for a boycott, it’s unlikely to be effective without the support of patient advocacy groups.  An informal survey of pain organizations by PNN found most were critical of CVS’ decision, but opposed to a boycott.

“I think boycotting CVS is not a good idea. I think a better idea is working with them for better care and finding the good in what they are doing and amplifying the bad.  They want better education, they want better disposal, and many other things we all fight for,” said Paul Gileno, President of the U.S. Pain Foundation.  “I don't think a boycott would work or be effective and can come across in a negative way. We need a loud conversation with CVS.”

“I don’t typically like boycotts” said Barby Ingle, President of the International Pain Foundation and a PNN columnist. “But if enough people have a bad experience or don’t like the CVS policies, they will see a drop in the market and will have to reevaluate what their policies will be.

“I wouldn’t call it a boycott, I would call it a shift in patients understanding that we have power and that we can choose to go to the healthcare places that fulfill our needs. Unless CVS changes their practices, I can see them continuing to lose business.”

Penney Cowan of the American Chronic Pain Association did not respond to a request for comment.

One patient advocate who gave full support for a boycott was Cynthia Toussaint, the founder of For Grace, a non-profit that supports women in pain.

“The lack of patient advocacy support for the boycott is totally surprising,” Toussaint wrote in an email. “We’ve all been beating the ‘don’t get between a doctor and a patient’ drum for years, and now that we can put our names behind that, we’re being sheepish.

“For Grace is ON BOARD with the boycott! This is chilling news for the pain world - and I hope our support helps many people. We understand CVS’s very real concern about the opioid crisis, but this new policy is too heavy handed and will greatly harm the chronic pain community!”


CVS is not the first pharmacy to restrict access to opioid medication. In 2013, Walgreens gave its pharmacists a “secret checklist” to help them screen patients with opioid prescriptions. Any red flags, such as a prescription written by a new doctor or a patient paying in cash, could result in a prescription not being filled. The policy was implemented after Walgreens was fined $80 million by the Drug Enforcement Agency for violating the rules for dispensing controlled substances.

CVS has also been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for violations of the Controlled Substances Act and other transgressions, many of them involving opioid medication.

A Florida pharmacist who was fired this year by Sam’s Club for not following the company's opioid policy says pharmacies are driven by profit, not patient care, and a boycott is unlikely to change their bottom line. 

“Patients won't need to boycott. CVS doesn't want the business anyway,” says Karl Deigert, who was fired after complaining that patient rights were being violated at Sam’s Club, which is owned by Walmart.  “Corporations are only acting in their own best interest and have no concern for the patient. Patients can save their breath and energy as any complaints filed will fall on deaf ears. 

“Overzealous corporate policy makers have no desire or interest to protect the patients' well-being. Their policy making is self-serving to protect their assets from DEA scrutiny and monetary penalties. The corporations and the majority of retail pharmacists simply do not care to help the chronic pain patient population.”

The new opioid policy at CVS doesn’t go into effect until February 1, 2018. But CVS Caremark is already tightening the rules for some opioid prescriptions. 

A Caremark client who has been getting fentanyl pain patches at CVS for years was recently notified by letter that new limits are being placed on the patches “to help ensure that your use of opioid medication for pain management is safe and appropriate.” 

But is it really about safe and appropriate use?

The letter goes on to say the patient will still be able to get the fentanyl patches, but without prior authorization they “will have to pay 100 percent of the cost.”