Pain Clinic Sign ‘Unauthorized and Untrue’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A Florida-based chain of surgery centers and pain clinics says a sign that briefly appeared at one of its clinics implying that the company would no longer prescribe opioid medication is unauthorized and untrue.

The sign appeared in a window at Physician Partners of America’s Jacksonville clinic on May 14.  Someone took a picture of the sign and posted it online, where it was widely shared on Twitter and Facebook among pain patients, advocates and doctors.

“ATTENTION ALL PATIENTS,” the sign said in bold red letters. “Per our chief (medical) officer, Dr. Rivera, we will be starting to focus on interventional medicine only and we will not be managing medication. This will be fully effective within the next 30 days or less.”

For someone taking opioid medication for chronic pain, the threat of being cutoff is very real. The potential number of patients that would be impacted would also be significant. Physician Partners of America (PPOA) treats around 20,000 patients in Florida and Texas.

The problem with the sign is that it isn’t true, according to the company.

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“This sign was brought to our attention through social media. It was in no way authorized or approved by management, and its message is untrue. It resulted from an employee’s misinterpretation of our goal to reduce opioid dependence,” Maria Hickman, PPOA’s social media and content specialist, said in a statement on the company’s website.

“We recognize the opioid crisis backlash. As an organization, we sympathize with the plight of people who rely on, but who do not intentionally abuse, prescription opioid medications to manage their chronic pain. We aim to show them what we consider a better, safer way to reduce or eliminate pain.”

That “safer way” is interventional pain management, a more aggressive form of treatment that includes epidural steroid injections, nerve blocks, “minimally invasive” spinal procedures, Botox injections, spinal cord stimulators and stem cell therapy. Interventional methods are more expensive than pain medication, are not always covered by insurance, and many patients believe they are neither safer or effective.

PPOA said it would continue prescribing opioids to patients when it is appropriate, adding that they would be tapered to lower doses. “Patients are and will continue to be titrated down according to CDC guidelines; however, there is no cut-off date,” Hickman said.

That part of the company’s statement reflects a common misconception about the CDC’s controversial guideline, which is voluntary and does not mandate tapers. The 2016 guideline only recommends tapering “if benefits do not outweigh harms of continued opioid therapy” and explicitly says tapering should be voluntary, with the patient’s consent.

“Clinicians should emphatically review benefits and risks of continued high-dosage opioid therapy and should offer to work with patients to taper opioids to safer dosages. For patients who agree to taper opioids to lower dosages, clinicians should collaborate with the patient on a tapering plan,” the guideline says.

That part of the guideline has been so widely ignored that CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, released a letter last month warning doctors not to taper patients without their consent.

“The Guideline does not endorse mandated or abrupt dose reduction or discontinuation, as these actions can result in patient harm,” Redfield said. “The Guideline includes recommendations for clinicians to work with patients to taper or reduce dosage only when patient harm outweighs patient benefit of opioid therapy.”

The marketing of Physician Partners of America clearly states a preference for interventional therapy over opioid medication, so patients who go to a PPOA clinic shouldn’t be surprised if tapering or discontinuation is recommended.

“At its foundation, PPOA uses interventional pain management modalities to treat pain at its source instead of masking it with medication,” the company says. “We have championed remedies to the opioid crisis in public forums, in the media, in televised town halls and at medical conventions. PPOA physicians strictly follow the prescribing laws of the states in which they operate.”

A new law recently went into effect in Florida limiting the initial supply of opioids to 3 days, with a 7-day supply allowed if it is medically necessary. However, the law only applies to acute, short-term pain.  Most of PPOA’s patients suffer from chronic back pain and other long-term chronic conditions.

Forced Opioid Tapering: ‘The Next Great Experiment’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Last month the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication. The agency said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients who’ve been suddenly cutoff, including withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.  

A new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shows just how common the practice is. And how millions of pain patients are being subjected to a public health experiment with hardly anyone keeping track of what happens to them.

“The United States went through a great ‘experiment’ of expanding treatment of pain with opioids which has proved to be disastrous for public health. We have entered the next great ‘experiment’ of discontinuing opioid medications among the millions of Americans who are currently taking them,” said lead author Tami Mark, PhD, senior director of behavioral health at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.

“Little is known about how many individuals are tapering off opioid medications, whether observed tapering follows any… guidelines, and the extent to which rapid tapering is associated with negative consequences.”

Mark and her colleagues looked at medical and pharmacy claims for nearly 500 Medicaid patients in Vermont who had high doses of opioid medication discontinued from 2013 to 2017.

All of the patients were prescribed a daily dose of at least 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) and over half had been on that high dose for over a year. 

Although most clinical guidelines recommend a “go slow” approach to opioid tapering – especially for patients on high doses – only 5 percent of the Vermont patients had a tapering period longer than 90 days. The vast majority (86%) were rapidly tapered in 21 days or less, including about half who were cut off from opioids without any tapering.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that patients on opioids be tapered only 10% a week, with even slower tapers of 10% a month for long-term users. Had those guidelines been applied in Vermont, most tapers would have taken up to a year to complete.

Half of Tapered Patients Hospitalized

What happened to the patients who were cut off? Nearly half were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure. For tapered patients, the risk of being hospitalized was reduced by 7% for each additional week of tapering.

Researchers don’t know how many of the discontinued patients committed suicide or how many were referred to addiction treatment. Notably, less than one percent received medication assistance treatment (MAT) such as Suboxone.

The study did not look at why patients were taken off opioids or who initiated the discontinuation. But researchers believe some of the rapid discontinuations “may be due to a breakdown in the clinical relationship between physicians and patients” – suggesting the patients were forcibly tapered or abandoned by their doctors.

In its warning to doctors, the FDA strongly recommends that patients not be forcibly tapered and that patients and doctors should jointly agree to a tapering plan.

“Health care professionals should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient. No standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients,” the FDA said.

Forced Tapering Widespread

How many patients have been forcibly tapered or discontinued is unclear, but it probably runs in the millions. A recent report from IQVIA found that there were 75 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled last year compared to 2014, with the biggest decline in high dose prescriptions. 

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 pain patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced since the CDC released its controversial opioid guideline in 2016. Many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief. And nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated.

“I have been forced to taper to 90 MME. I had been stable and functional for 10 years at 135 MME. Now I can no longer work, and can barely take care of my children. I am considering suicide because my pain is unbearable,” one patient told us.

“I have been forcibly tapered by more than half and my pain is not being relieved at this dose. I am now unable to work or care for my children,” another patient wrote. “I live in constant anxiety (which worsens my pain) that I will be abandoned, refused any pain management, or reduced to a dose so low that taking my own life is the only way to escape the pain.”

“My forced taper was a little over a year ago. Before that I lived a small but functional life on high dose opioids. I took the same dose, from the same doctor for over a decade. Then I was forced off of 75% of my dose,” said another patient. “Once we got down to my current dose the medication was no longer enough to control my pain. I now live a tiny, nonfunctional life. I spend all my time in bed watching TV. I never leave the house. Showers are my worst enemy. And I am lucky. I wasn’t abandoned by my doctor.”

A noted critic of opioid prescribing calls reports like these exaggerations. Andrew Kolodny, MD, the Executive Director and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told Stateline that the number of doctors who are inappropriately tapering patients is likely very small and should not be blamed on the CDC.

"We have a very real problem in this country. But the CDC guidelines didn't cause it," Kolodny said. "The problem is that millions of Americans have been put on round-the-clock opioids at very high doses and for reasons that doctors now realize were not appropriate.

"What the FDA needs to tell doctors is that because it is so excruciating to come off of opioids, they need to be very selective about who they put on them.”

In a series of Tweets two years ago, Kolodny said patients on high doses should be forcibly tapered “even if patient refuses” and challenged assertions that forced tapering was risky and widespread.

Now Kolodny says he sympathizes with patients but claims they are being manipulated.

“Their emotions are real. But they’re being effectively manipulated to controversialize the CDC guidelines,” he told Stateline.

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Many of Kolodny’s colleagues disagree. Over 300 healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter last year that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Oregon Drops Opioid Tapering Plan

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

An Oregon health panel has tabled a controversial plan that would have forced tens of thousands of Medicaid patients with neck and back pain to stop taking opioid medication. The Health Evidence Review Commission (HERC) voted unanimously to wait for additional studies to be completed later this year, which effectively delays any change in medical coverage under the Oregon Health Plan until 2022.

The forced tapering plan drew nationwide criticism from pain sufferers, patient advocates and pain management experts, who said it would “exacerbate suffering for thousands of patients.”

"Pain is complicated and different for everyone," said HERC chairman Kevin Olson, MD, in a statement. "We heard loud and clear that pain treatment and opioid tapering should be individualized based on the patient-clinician relationship. I am pleased that we were able to align the neck and back coverage with these principles."

If a patient with any chronic pain condition is not doing well with an opioid taper, HERC said the tapering should stop without consequence to the prescriber or patient.

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But patient advocates say some doctors have already implemented HERC’s forced tapering proposal without waiting for it to be finalized.

“Many patients across Oregon have already suffered tapering from their opiate pain management or have been dropped by their physician as a result of this policy. Those patients who have already been affected deserve proper treatment for their medical conditions and must have their previous pain management regiments and care reinstated,” said Amanda Siebe, a pain patient and disabled activist who recently announced she was running for Congress in Oregon’s 1st congressional district.

“It's time HERC made up for the damage they've done to this community over the last 2 years, and give us the proper care and coverage we deserve to maintain functionality and quality of life. This fight won't be over for us until all patients are able to receive the pain management, care, and coverage they need and deserve.”

The HERC also voted unanimously to continue not covering treatment for five common chronic pain conditions, citing a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of any therapy, including opioids. The five conditions are chronic pain caused by trauma, post-surgical chronic pain, chronic pain syndrome, fibromyalgia and “other chronic pain.”

Patients advocates had supported a plan to cover those condition, not only with opioid therapy, but with alternative treatments such as physical therapy, acupuncture and yoga.

“The conditions being discussed are valid conditions, and I think they’re in need of medical treatment options. I think that opioids should be a part of those options,” Wendy Sinclair, a pain patient and co-founder of the Oregon Pain Action Group told the Bend Bulletin. “Doctors and patients need to work together and have those options available.”

HERC’s decision to reverse course on tapering was a significant and rare victory for the pain community, which rarely gets a set at the table or is listened to when political and regulatory decisions are made about opioid medication.

Last year over a hundred pain management experts signed a letter to HERC warning that its tapering plan would have been the most restrictive in the U.S. and was unsupported by treatment guidelines. That warning was recently echoed by the Food and Drug Administration, which said rapid tapering and forced discontinuation of opioids was causing “serious harm” to patients, including withdrawal, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.

Still No Relief in Sight for Canadian Pain Patients

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

Last month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency’s 2016 opioid guideline does not endorse rapid tapering or discontinuation of opioid therapy. The CDC was responding to mounting criticism that its controversial guideline was causing harm to patients, including uncontrolled pain, depression and suicide.

As a Canadian, I am envious and embarrassed, for it is not over for pain patients in Canada. Americans have had active advocates in the American Medical Association and hundreds of doctors signing a public letter of protest, which resulted in the CDC and Food and Drug Administration finally admitting that forcing people to go off opiates is not good practice.

Canadian docs have said little about this, so I decided to ask the main authors of Canada’s opioid guideline, which is pretty much a copy of the CDC’s. They had written in response to me last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that they had “concerns” about inappropriate tapering and would “monitor the emerging literature.” Only one replied to me this time, saying that they speak out whenever they can, but no one will listen to them.

One anonymous doctor going by the name of “doc2help” objected to a piece I did in Medium suggesting that Canadian doctors have lost their moral compass. He thinks I am ill informed and doing damage.

I also let the office of the Canadian Minister of Health know what the CDC and FDA have done, as Health Canada has the same regulatory powers for drug approvals as the FDA. The answer was that they are having internal discussions.

Meetings and discussions make the bureaucracy go round-and-round. The Minister of Health did recently announce the formation of a chronic pain task force, but it has a three year time frame for more meetings.

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It is so much easier to blame patients and opioid prescribing, as Canadian authorities continue to do, even when most drug overdoses are the result of illicit fentanyl, not prescription opioids.

In Hamilton, Ontario, a medium sized city southwest of Toronto, opioid deaths are going up, while prescriptions are going down. Much of the illicit drugs in that city are due to pharmacy diversion, according to an excellent article in the Hamilton Spectator that revealed vast amounts of prescription drugs are making it onto our streets.

So far, 15 pharmacists have been caught peddling opioids illegally and Health Canada has found that over 1,400 Ontario pharmacies have reported missing drugs that they cannot account for. 

Dr. Anne Holbrook, director of clinical pharmacology at McMaster University, suggested it is patients who are selling their prescriptions on the street, but provided no studies to back up that claim when she spoke to the Spectator reporter. I have asked her directly and via the media relations department at McMaster University, but did not get a reply.  

Blaming patients is easy when you do not want to confront the fact that most street drugs are coming into the country illegally or being diverted by pharmacies.

A Toronto Star investigation found one Ottawa pharmacy that was responsible for putting at least 5,000 fentanyl patches on the street. The investigation found that between 2013 and 2017, nearly 3.5 million doses of prescription drugs disappeared from Ontario pharmacies. Over 200 Ontario pharmacists were disciplined by their professional body for diverting “massive amounts of deadly opioids.”

Our governments are ignoring all of this and blaming the poor chronic pain patients. Those of us in Canada will have to wait while the bureaucrats hold meetings and write papers before anything will be done.

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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.

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.

When Will Forced Tapering of Opioids End?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

“Larry” recently wrote to me asking for advice. He describes himself as "virtually crippled totally" after having his opioid medication cutback.

"I am being forced tapered and the PA I now have will not budge one inch on the weaning, as he calls it. I hate him. I have never had a more callous doctor in my life," Larry wrote.

"What does one do in my situation? Blow my brains out? A[n] intentional overdose? I have two beautiful dogs that depend on me and a son who needs me. I have to stay here on planet Earth although I want out of here so bad I beg God to kill me every morning noon and night. It is my daily prayer."

Unfortunately, Larry is only one of many patients who are struggling to be heard by their providers. Physicians are under government pressure to adhere to the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

Although the CDC designed its guideline as voluntary, government agencies interpreted it as a mandate instead. The Drug Enforcement Administration has pursued doctors who prescribe a level of opioids that exceeds the guideline's recommended daily limit of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent), even when no patients have been harmed.

According to Maia Szalavitz, writing for Tonic, Dr. Forest Tennant was one of the few physicians who still were willing to prescribe high-dose opioids for the sickest pain patients. The DEA raided his California office and home, allegedly because the agency had reason to believe some of his patients were selling their medication.

There simply was no evidence of that. But as a result of the raid, Dr. Tennant retired from clinical practice.

Szalavitz wrote that the raid "terrifies pain patients and their physicians, who fear that it could lead to de facto prohibition of opioid prescribing for chronic pain and even hamper end-of-life care."

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Dr. Mark Ibsen in Montana had his license suspended by the state medical board for allegedly overprescribing opioids. According to Dr. Ibsen, the DEA warned him "he was risking his livelihood and could end up in jail if he kept prescribing." A judge later overturned the board’s decision.

As Dr. James Patrick Murphy, a Kentucky-based pain and addiction specialist, told the Courier-Journal, "many well-intended doctors are unfairly arrested 'all the time' in the hunt for those who recklessly contribute to patients' addictions and fatal overdoses."

As of this writing, The American University Law Journal plans to publish an alarming article by Michael Barnes, JD, about the raids on America’s top physicians.

Although few physicians are incarcerated for prescribing high dosages of opioids, many of them are threatened with losing their licenses to practice medicine. Doctors and pharmacists told a POLITICO survey that they felt enormous pressure to limit their prescriptions for painkillers. Their fear of the consequences of noncompliance with the CDC guideline exceeded their responsibility to treat patients with severe pain.

Second Thoughts About CDC Guideline

On April 1, the attorneys general of 39 states and territories wrote a letter on behalf of the National Association of Attorneys General to Dr. Vanila Singh of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The letter expressed concern with the draft report of the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force, which recommends changes in the CDC guideline to end the forced tapering of patients.

The attorneys general said "it is incomprehensible that officials would consider moving away from key components of the CDC guideline." Additionally, they expressed their hope that the report would be revised "to clearly state that there is no completely safe opioid dose."

Yet on April 9, the Food and Drug Administration issued a medical alert warning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid medication, because it was causing “serious harm” to patients, including uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicides.

Now it seems the CDC may be moving in the same direction.

Dr. Daniel Alford, a Professor of Medicine at Boston University, wrote a letter to the CDC asking it to address the misapplication of its guideline with a "public clarification." He was writing on behalf of Health Professionals for Patients in Pain, and 300 healthcare professionals signed his letter.

The CDC's response, published on April 10, echoed the FDA's statement. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield observed that the CDC guideline "offered no support for mandatory opioid dose reductions in patients with long-term pain." He reinforced the fact that the guideline was voluntary and that doctors should use their knowledge of their patients to determine which dosages were appropriate for them.

Dr. Redfield wrote that “CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms." And he agreed that "patients suffering from chronic pain deserve safe and effective pain management."

STAT News points out that the overzealous enforcement of the CDC guideline was indeed causing patients harm. "Denying opioids to patients who have relied on them — sometimes for years — may cause some to turn to street drugs, thereby increasing their risk of overdose," STAT warned.

According to The Washington Post, "Many patients have claimed that long-term use of the drugs is all that stands between them and unrelenting pain, and that they can take the medication without becoming dependent or addicted."

The CDC and the FDA now admit the guideline has been misapplied and mainstream media outlets are beginning to pick up the story. The question is: Will the DEA stop pursuing doctors who treat pain patients with levels of opioids that exceed the guideline's recommendations?

For Larry and other pain patients who have been forcibly tapered, the answer may be a matter of life and death.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

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.

CDC Director Says Agency Will ‘Clarify’ Opioid Guideline

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, has for the first time suggested that his agency may be preparing to make changes to its controversial opioid prescribing guideline.

“CDC is working diligently to evaluate the impact of the Guideline and clarify its recommendations to help reduce unintended harms,” Redfield wrote in an April 10 letter to Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3). 

Redfield was responding to a March 6 letter from HP3 signed by over 300 healthcare professionals urging the CDC to make a “bold clarification” of the voluntary guideline, which has been implemented as a mandatory policy by many insurers, pharmacies, states and practitioners. As a result, many chronic pain patients have been denied or forcibly tapered off opioid medication and become disabled or bedridden. Some have turned to alcohol and illegal drugs for pain relief.

The situation has become so dire, the Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning this week cautioning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid medication. The FDA said it had received reports of “serious harm” to patients, including withdrawal, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.    

ROBERT REDFIELD, md

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“The Guideline does not endorse mandated or abrupt dose reduction or discontinuation, as these actions can result in patient harm,” Redfield said in his letter, which was released a day after the FDA warning. “The Guideline includes recommendations for clinicians to work with patients to taper or reduce dosage only when patient harm outweighs patient benefit of opioid therapy.”

Redfield has been CDC director for a little over a year. The letter is his most extensive public comment to date on the opioid guideline, which was only intended for primary care physicians treating chronic, non-cancer pain. Redfield emphasized that doctors and patients should collaborate on tapering plans, but only “if a patient would like to taper.”

“The Guideline also recommends that that the plan be based on the patient’s goals and concerns and that tapering be slow enough to minimize opioid withdrawal,” Redfield said.

“We are so grateful to the CDC for its essential clarification,” said Sally Satel, MD, of the American Enterprise Institute and Yale University, who helped draft the HP3 letter. “Now it’s time for the federal, state, and non-governmental institutions that have invoked the CDC’s authority to push some traumatic changes to care to reverse course.”

‘Closing the Barn Door’

But critics wonder why it took the CDC three years to acknowledge that the guideline has been widely implemented beyond its initial intent.

“I find it striking that, while CDC has made statements from time to time about their intent that the guideline not be turned into legislation and regulations, this is the boldest statement they've made yet, and it's coming only after more than 35 states have legislated some part of the guideline, not to mention actions by payers,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, former Executive Director of the Association of Integrative Pain Management.

“If they truly did not anticipate that this was going to happen, then they were incredibly naive, because many of us made public statements predicting these outcomes at the time the guideline was released. I know there are some patient advocates who hope this will lead to the unwinding of some of the legislation, but I think that's a very long-term project. In other words, it's a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped.”

When it released its opioid guideline in 2016, the CDC pledged to evaluate its intended and unintended consequences and said it would make changes to the recommendations if needed. Redfield’s letter contains a 3-page enclosure that summarizes the agency’s efforts to evaluate the impact of the guideline. A careful reading of the enclosure, however, shows that most of the studies underway are not being conducted by the CDC itself and that they focus primarily on whether the guideline has been successful in reducing opioid prescriptions — not whether patients are being harmed by it.

“Honestly, I don't think it's such a bad thing that CDC is supporting outside work to assess the impact of the guideline. Having independent researchers who may not be as likely to feel a need to defend the guideline can only be helpful,” said Twillman.

“I sense this is a political delaying action to avoid having to admit that CDC was fundamentally wrong,” said Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, Director of Research for the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). “The Director of CDC letter has doubled down on several ‘initiatives’ which appear to assume that the original assumptions and declarations of the guidelines were correct -- which they weren't, and for which there is abundant published proof that they weren't.”

Lawhern wrote an open letter to Redfield this week, calling for CDC guideline to be revoked, not just clarified, because many of its key assumptions about the addictive potential of prescription opioids are wrong.

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 85 percent said the guideline has made their pain and quality of life worse. Nearly half say they have considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated. Many patients are hoarding opioids because they fear losing access to them and some are turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.

FDA Warns About Fast Opioid Tapers

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning Tuesday cautioning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication.

The agency said in a statement it had received reports of “serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased.” The harm includes withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.

The FDA gave no details on cases of patient harm but said it was tracking them and would require changes on opioid warning labels to help instruct physicians on how to safely decrease opioid doses.

“Rapid discontinuation can result in uncontrolled pain or withdrawal symptoms. In turn, these symptoms can lead patients to seek other sources of opioid pain medicines, which may be confused with drug-seeking for abuse. Patients may attempt to treat their pain or withdrawal symptoms with illicit opioids, such as heroin, and other substances,” the FDA said.

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In recent years, there have been an increasing number of anecdotal reports of pain patients committing suicide or turning to illegal drugs for pain relief. It is not clear why the FDA decided to act now, just days after the departure of former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD.

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced. Nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated and many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.

  • 11% obtained opioid medication from family, friends or black market

  • 26% used medical marijuana for pain relief

  • 20% used alcohol for pain relief

  • 20% used kratom for pain relief

  • 4% used illegal drugs (heroin, illicit fentanyl, etc.) for pain relief    

Last December, over a hundred healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Federal agencies widely differ on opioid tapering recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a "go slow" approach, with a "reasonable starting point" being 10% of the original dose per week. Patients who have been on opioids for a long time should have even slower tapers of 10% a month, according to the CDC.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a taper of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although in some cases the VA suggests an initial rapid taper of 20% to 50% a day “if needed.”

In its warning, the FDA cautioned doctors that no standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients.

When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient,” the FDA said. “Create a patient-specific plan to gradually taper the dose of the opioid and ensure ongoing monitoring and support, as needed, to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms, worsening of the patient’s pain, or psychological distress.”

The FDA urged patients and doctors to report side effects from opioid discontinuation and rapid tapers at druginfo@fda.hhs.gov or to call 855-543-DRUG (3784) and press 4.

Oregon’s Opioid Tapering Plan Delayed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A controversial plan that could force thousands of Medicaid patients in Oregon off opioid pain medication has been put on hold because of a medical expert’s potential conflict of interest.

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Patrick Allen asked the Health Evidence Review Commission (HERC) to table a final vote on changes in opioid policy until his agency could get an independent review of the recommendations.

At issue is a task force plan to limit Medicaid coverage of opioids to just 90-days for fibromyalgia and lower back pain. Patients currently on opioids longer than 90 days would be required to taper off the medications and switch to alternative therapies such as acupuncture and physical therapy that would be covered by Medicaid.

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The plan has drawn nationwide criticism from chronic pain patients, advocates and pain management experts who say forced tapering would “exacerbate suffering for thousands of patients.”

Allen said he learned this week that Dr. Catherine Livingston, a family medicine physician who serves as a contracted medical consultant to HERC, is also a paid consultant to the Kaiser Center for Health Research and the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Livingston helped draft the opioid coverage proposal.

“I have requested the HERC to remove a chronic pain management proposal from today’s agenda to allow OHA time to seek independent review to ensure no potential conflicts of interest compromised the way the chronic pain benefit proposal was developed for the HERC’s consideration,” Allen said in a statement.

“It is vital for the Oregon Health Plan to cover safe and effective therapies to help people reduce and manage chronic pain. Yet it is also vital that Oregonians have full confidence in the decisions the HERC makes to assess the effectiveness of health care procedures.”

No timetable was set for the independent review. At a HERC hearing earlier this week, The Bend Bulletin reported that state officials defended the opioid policy change.

“I think the potential harms associated with opioids have become clear,” said Dr. Dana Hargunani, chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority. “Harms shown by the evidence about tapering are less clear.”

But in a joint letter signed by over 100 pain management experts, Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of pain medicine at Stanford University, urged the commission not to mandate “non-consensual forced tapering.”

“We fear the HERC’s proposal is, in essence, a large-scale experiment on medically, psychologically and economically vulnerable Oregonians, at a moment when Oregon has already seen a significant reduction in opioid prescribing and prescription opioid-related deaths,” Mackey wrote. “The evidence supports that this proposal represents an alarming step backward in the delivery of patient-centered pain care for the state of Oregon.”

Other members of the task force questioned the distinction between forced and voluntary tapers.

“I can’t tell you whether the tapers I do in my practice are voluntary or involuntary,” said Dr. Roger Chou, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University who was one of the co-authors of the controversial CDC opioid prescribing guideline.  “I explain why I think that’s important, that it’s a safety issue, and I guide them through the process. I try to be empathetic, but they don’t want to taper.

“I don’t think there’s anything compassionate about leaving people on drugs that could potentially harm them.”

Doctors Call for Urgent Review of Opioid Tapering Policy

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

An open letter by healthcare professionals to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is warning that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and calls for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.”

The joint letter, recently published online in the journal Pain Medicine, is signed by over a hundred physicians, academics and patient advocates – including some longtime critics of opioid prescribing.  

Among the signatories are Keith Humphreys, PhD, a Stanford University psychologist who has warned of a global opioid epidemic “driven by the overuse of legal painkillers,” David Juurlink, MD, a board member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) who has called the War on Pain “one of the most spectacular failures of modern medicine,” and Red Lawhern, PhD, a strident patient advocate who has blamed PROP’s founder for “the deaths of hundreds of chronic pain patients.”

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One thing these strange bedfellows have in common is that they all agree forced tapering has gone too far and has become “a genuine threat to a large number of patients.”

“Countless ‘legacy patients’ with chronic pain who were progressively escalated to high opioid doses, often over many years, now face additional and very serious risks resulting from rapid tapering or related policies that mandate extreme dose reductions that are aggressive and unrealistic,” the letter states.

“Rapid forced tapering can destabilize these patients, precipitating severe opioid withdrawal accompanied by worsening pain and profound loss of function. To escape the resultant suffering, some patients may seek relief from illicit (and inherently more dangerous) sources of opioids, whereas others may become acutely suicidal.”

We’ve shared the stories of several of these patients, including Bryan Spece, a Montana man who killed himself in 2017 after his oxycodone dose was abruptly cut by as much as 70 percent.

To avoid severe withdrawal symptoms, the CDC recommends a "go slow" approach to tapering, starting with 10% per week; while the Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a taper of 5% to 20% every four weeks. These tapering guidelines are not being followed by many doctors, who often feel pressured by insurance companies, regulators and law enforcement to lower doses, regardless of the harm it might cause a patient.

“Currently, nonconsensual tapering policies are being enacted throughout the country without careful systems that attend to patient safety,” the Pain Medicine letter warns. “We therefore call for an urgent review of mandated opioid tapering policies for outpatients at every level of health care — including prescribing, pharmacy, and insurance policies—and across borders, to minimize the iatrogenic harm that ensues from aggressive opioid tapering policies and practices.”

The letter also calls for pain management specialists and patient advisory boards to be included in future decisions about prescription opioids. They have often been excluded by federal agencies and commissions in previous decisions.

The letter in Pain Medicine is the second joint letter recently signed by healthcare professionals calling for a significant change in the nation’s opioid policies. A letter signed in October called on the CDC to make a “bold clarification” of its 2016 opioid guideline and to evaluate the impact it is having on pain patients — something the agency has not done.

Doctors Urge CDC to Clarify Rx Opioid Guideline

(Editor’s Note: Five healthcare professionals recently began circulating an open letter to the CDC asking it to make a “bold clarification” of its controversial 2016 opioid guideline.

They believe many chronic pain patients have suffered under the guideline, because it has led to widespread tapering and discontinuation of opioids. They invited other healthcare professionals to co-sign the letter. To date, well over 200 have.

To see a list of signatories, click here. If you are a healthcare professional and also wish to sign the letter, click here.)  

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Authors: Health Professionals for Patients in Pain

Any professional who cares for patients, including physicians, pharmacists, nurses, psychologists and social workers, is invited to sign on to this letter, as are any professional organizations that wish to endorse formally. 

I. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, issued a Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain for primary care physicians. Its laudable goals were to improve communication between clinicians and patients about the risks and benefits of opioid therapy for chronic pain, improve the safety and effectiveness of pain treatment, and reduce the risks associated with long-term opioid therapy. The Guideline reflected the work of appointed experts who achieved consensus on the matter of opioid use in chronic pain. 

Among its recommendations are that opioids should rarely be a first option for chronic pain, that clinicians must carefully weigh the risks and benefits of maintaining opioids in patients already on them, and that established or transferring patients should be offered the opportunity to re-evaluate their continued use at high dosages (i.e., > 90 MME, morphine milligram equivalents).  

In light of evidence that prescribed dose may pose risks for adverse patient events, clinicians and patients may choose to consider dose reductions, when they can be accomplished without adverse effect, and with possible benefit, according to some trial data.  

Nonetheless, it is imperative that healthcare professionals and administrators realize that the Guideline does not endorse mandated involuntary dose reduction or discontinuation, as data to support the efficacy and safety of this practice are lacking.  

II. Within a year of Guideline publication, there was evidence of widespread misapplication of some of the Guideline recommendations. Notably, many doctors and regulators incorrectly believed that the CDC established a threshold of 90 MME as a de facto daily dose limit. Soon, clinicians prescribing higher doses, pharmacists dispensing them, and patients taking them came under suspicion.  

Actions that followed included payer-imposed payment barriers, pharmacy chain demands for the medical chart, or explicit taper plans as a precondition for filling prescriptions, high-stakes metrics imposed by quality agencies, and legal or professional risks for physicians, often based on invocation of the CDC’s authority. Taken in combination, these actions have led many health care providers to perceive a significant category of vulnerable patients as institutional and professional liabilities to be contained or eliminated, rather than as people needing care.  

III. Adverse experiences for these patients are documented predominantly in anecdotal form, but they are concerning. Patients with chronic pain, who are stable and, arguably, benefiting from long-term opioids, face draconian and often rapid involuntary dose reductions. Often, alternative pain care options are not offered, not covered by insurers, or not accessible. Others are pushed to undergo addiction treatment or invasive procedures (such as spinal injections), regardless of whether clinically appropriate.  

Consequently, patients have endured not only unnecessary suffering, but some have turned to suicide or illicit substance use. Others have experienced preventable hospitalizations or medical deterioration in part because insurers, regulators and other parties have deployed the 90 MME threshold as a both a professional standard and a threshold for professional suspicion. Under such pressure, care decisions are not always based on the best interests of the patient. 

lV. Action is Required: The 2016 Guideline specifically states, “the CDC is committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted”. The CDC has a moral imperative to uphold its avowed goals and to protect patients.  

Therefore, we call upon the CDC to take action: 

1. We urge the CDC to follow through with its commitment to evaluate impact by consulting directly with a wide range of patients and caregivers, and by engaging epidemiologic experts to investigate reported suicides, increases in illicit opioid use and, to the extent possible, expressions of suicidal ideation following involuntary opioid taper or discontinuation. 

2. We urge the CDC to issue a bold clarification about the 2016 Guideline – what it says and what it does not say, particularly on the matters of opioid taper and discontinuation.  

Signatories here represent their own views, and do not purport to reflect formal positions of their employing agencies, governmental or otherwise.

For questions regarding the letter, please contact Stefan G. Kertesz, MD, Professor of Medicine at University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine (skertesz@uabmc.edu).

The information in this letter 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.