Task Force: Canada's Chronic Pain Patients ‘Simply Deserve Better’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In March, Health Canada created a new national task force to study how to prevent and treat chronic pain and remove barriers to pain treatment. Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor called it “the first step in addressing the issue of chronic pain in this country.”

One in five Canadians lives with chronic pain and -- like their counterparts in the United States -- many have trouble just finding a doctor willing to treat them. Some patient advocates were skeptical of Health Canada’s task force and its plan to release an initial report this summer, followed by two more reports in 2020 and 2021. It sounded like bureaucratic foot dragging.

“We are happy they are actually acknowledging chronic pain is an issue. However, the time frame is wrong and a little bit too late,” said Barry Ulmer of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada (CPAC).

Four months later, that initial report from the task force has now been released. It calls pain a “significant public health issue” in Canada and admits the nation’s healthcare system often fails to treat pain patients. Efforts to rein in opioid prescribing — such as Canada’s opioid guideline — have made a bad situation worse.

canada flag.jpg

“Some Canadians have been unable to access opioid medications when needed for pain and function. Others have faced undue barriers to obtaining or filling their opioid prescriptions, and some have had their opioid dose abruptly lowered or discontinued. This has resulted in unnecessary pain and suffering, and has led some Canadians to obtain illegal drugs to treat their pain,” the task force found.

“People living with pain have limited access to the services they require and often face stigma and undue suffering as a result of their condition. This stigma often intersects with other forms of discrimination related to poverty, housing and employment instability, mental illness, race and ethnicity, and other factors further complicating the challenge of living with pain. Canadians living with pain and their loved ones simply deserve better.”

Patients Not Believed

In its short history, the task force completed an ambitious review of pain care in Canada; holding public workshops, meeting with federal and local governments, and consulting with healthcare providers and researchers. Importantly, the panel also reached out to the pain community and invited 12 Canadians living with chronic pain to share their experiences. Many said they had poor access to pain care or were not believed by healthcare providers.

“I was bounced between various outpatient clinics and utilizing the ER multiple times a month and making no progress,” one patent said. “I was consistently questioned whether or not I was making up the pain for attention, or if the pain was due to a mental health condition.” 

“While I am fortunate to be seen periodically by a pain specialist, I do not have access to a multidisciplinary pain clinic where key services, such as physiotherapy and psychology are provided. Many patients in my community have even less (or no) access to a pain specialist and are unduly suffering as a result. They do not know where to turn,” another patient said.

“I found the transition from the pediatric pain clinic to the adult pain clinic very difficult. At the pediatric pain clinic they have a multi-disciplinary team, which include a psychologist, a physiotherapist, a nurse, and a pain specialist. At the adult pain clinic they only have a physician who is amazing but is overstretched, sometimes I can only get an appointment every 6 months,” another patient told the task force. 

Pain Education Lacking

Improving pain education in Canada’s medical schools was one of the first goals identified by the task force. In a review of 10 Canadian universities, the panel found that 68% of the medical programs were not providing any designated hours for pain education.  Incredibly, veterinary students receive 2 to 5 times more pain education than that of health science students.

The panel also found that pain care in Canada is largely dependent on where people live and what type of insurance they have; that pain patients need better access to psychological support, physical therapies and other healthcare services; and that more research and better evidence is needed to help providers make informed decisions on pain care.

“This report makes Health Canada aware of what Canadians with pain have known for too long: that pain care is largely not accessible, many health care providers lack the knowledge and skills to manage pain and breakthroughs in research are hampered by lack of funding,” said Maria Hudspith, co-chair of the task force and Executive Director of Pain BC, a patient advocacy group in British Columbia.

“We hope this report lays the foundation for a national pain strategy that will improve the lives of Canadians who live with pain.”

Not everyone is happy with the direction the task force is taking. CPAC called it a “knee jerk” reaction to the pain crisis that continues to spread stigma about pain patients and their use of opioid medication.

“You see it again in this report,” CPAC’s Ulmer said in a statement. “Pain patients are supposedly often mentally ill—somehow, the need for relief has been recast as mental illness, though it seems pretty sane to me. And patients are repeatedly said to be at high risk of addiction.”

Last month, a federal task force in the U.S. released a final report on recommended best practices for pain management. It found nearly identical problems as the panel in Canada — and called for a balanced approach to pain treatment that focuses on individualized patient care, not rigid prescribing guidelines that have triggered a pain crisis for millions of Americans.

 

39 Attorneys General Practicing Medicine Without a License

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over 5,000 healthcare providers, patients, caretakers and advocacy organizations have left comments in the Federal Register on a draft report by a federal advisory panel known as the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force. The comment period ended April 1.

Most of the comments – which you can see by clicking here – are supportive of the report, which recommends that pain management be balanced, multimodal and focused on individualized patient care. Opioid pain medication should be prescribed cautiously, if prescribed at all, according to the task force.

Those may sound like reasonable and prudent goals, but one aspect of the draft report has stirred controversy and it’s a familiar one: the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

While commending its “useful general guidance,” the report found that that guideline has had many unintended consequences, including forced opioid tapering, patient abandonment and suicide. The task force said the guideline was never meant to be mandatory or to be used as a model by states, insurers and pharmacies, and better evidence was needed to support its recommendations.

The task force stopped short of recommending a wholesale revision of the guideline, but suggested a “more even-handed approach” to pain care was needed.  

“In essence, clinicians should be able to use their clinical judgement to determine opioid duration for their patients,” the report concludes.

bigstock-Health-Care-Challenge-39408331.jpg

Those were fighting words to some anti-opioid crusaders and politicians who consider the CDC guideline a cornerstone of the government’s war on drugs.

“As a matter of public safety, there is simply no justification to move away from the CDC Guideline to encourage more liberal use of an ineffective treatment that causes nearly 50,000 deaths annually,” warns a letter signed by 39 state and territory attorney generals.  “It is incomprehensible that officials would consider moving away from key components of the CDC Guideline.”

‘They Have Overreached’

The AG’s letter shows a fundamental and perhaps willful ignorance of what the guideline is – a voluntary set of recommendations intended only for primary care physicians. The letter also demonstrates how politicians have grown accustomed to inserting themselves into pain management decisions normally left between patients and their doctors. In essence, the AG’s are saying that doctors should not be allowed to use their own clinical judgement and should rely instead on treatment guidelines.  

“The Draft Report proposes to rely solely on the judgment of providers regarding the dose and duration of opioid treatment. With annual overdose deaths in the tens of thousands, evidence-based recommendations, such as documentation and consultation, are necessary,” the AG letter states. “Similarly, the Draft Report states that duration of opioid treatment for acute pain, including trauma and surgery, is best determined by providers without the need for guidelines to inform appropriate decision-making.”

Critics say the AG’s are essentially practicing medicine without a license.

“The foxes watching the hen house want more hens to watch, more justification for their existence,” says Mark Ibsen, MD, a Montana doctor all too familiar with government intrusion into pain care. Ibsen’s medical license was suspended in 2016 over allegations that he overprescribed opioids, a decision later reversed by a judge.

“They have overreached. I hope someone else notices, and takes law enforcement out of the practice of medicine, where they’ve been screwing up medical care since 1914. Abolish the DEA. Let law enforcement catch criminals, not make them up out of thin air,” Ibsen said.

This isn’t the first time the National Association of Attorneys General has tried to meddle in pain care. In 2017, the organization sent a letter to health insurers asking them to take steps to reduce the prescribing of opioid medication.

Reducing the frequency with which opioids are prescribed will not leave patients without effective pain management options.
— National Assn. of Attorneys General

“Reducing the frequency with which opioids are prescribed will not leave patients without effective pain management options,” the 2017 letter states. “When patients seek treatment for any of the myriad conditions that cause chronic pain, doctors should be encouraged to explore and prescribe effective non-opioid alternatives, ranging from non-opioid medications (such as NSAIDs) to physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic care.”

In their latest letter, it’s no longer a matter of “should.” The AG’s say doctors “must be encouraged” to reduce opioid prescriptions and to recognize that opioids have “well established risks.”  

“The Draft Report should be revised to clearly state that there is no completely safe opioid dose, and that higher doses are particularly – and predictably – risky,” the AG’s wrote.

But most opioid medications are not particularly risky, as PNN reported in a recent study of over half a million Medicare patients who were prescribed the drugs. Over 90 percent had a negligible risk of an overdose. Even among “high risk” patients on high opioid doses, the risk of an overdose is less than two percent.

‘Too Much Money On the Line’

Critics also point out the AG’s have a political and financial interest in demonizing opioid medication. Most have signed on as plaintiffs in over 1,600 class action lawsuits filed by states, cities and counties seeking billions of dollars in damages from opioid manufacturers and distributors. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter – one of the AG’s who signed the letter criticizing the task force report --  recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Purdue Pharma for $270 million.  

“There is just too much potential money on the line. This is not an argument about truth, or evidence, or anything except money," says Andrea Anderson, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP).  

“Since the Purdue/Oklahoma settlement of $270 million, all the AG’s of every state involved in this opioid litigation will focus solely on their potential financial gains until they get their piece of settlement pie. This will come at the cost of needed revisions to the flawed CDC Guidelines and a return to clinical common sense. People can remember these AG’s when they vote.” 

According to OpenSecrets.org, the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy donated over $1 million to congressional candidates during the 2018 election cycle. Simmons Hanly Conroy represents dozens of states and local governments that are suing drug makers over their marketing of opioids, and would pocket one-third of the proceeds from any settlements, according to reports.

A recent PNN survey found the CDC guideline was having a harmful effect on both patients and healthcare providers. Over 85 percent of patients say the guideline has made their pain and quality of life worse. Nearly half have considered suicide. Over two-thirds of practitioners are worried about being sanctioned or prosecuted for prescribing opioids. Rather than risk going to prison, many have stopped treating pain, closed their practice or retired.  

Sen. Wyden Wants to Censor Pain Experts’ Opinions

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

In 2016, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) created an advisory panel called the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force and charged it to “develop a set of best practices for chronic and acute pain management and prescribing pain medication.”

The task force has just released its first draft report that makes several recommendations. One is to update the scientific evidence on which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s controversial 2016 Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain was based. Another goal is to expand areas already included in the guideline.

On December 18, 2018, just before the report was published, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) wrote a letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). In it, he questioned the ability of several experts to serve impartially on the task force because of their alleged connections to the pharmaceutical industry. Specifically, Sen. Wyden worried that opioid manufacturers could exert “financial influence” on those task force members.

Wyden’s concerns about the HHS’s vetting practices would be understandable if the individuals who had been appointed to the advisory panel actually were receiving funds directly from industry. However, that is not the case.

Wyden’s letter specifically mentions Dr. Jianguo Cheng, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM), and Dr. Rollin Gallagher, editor-in-chief of the journal Pain Medicine.

In his letter, Wyden opposes Drs. Cheng and Gallagher’s participation primarily because of their association with AAPM, a professional medical organization that has registered concerns about the impact of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline on people in chronic pain.

Dr. Josh Bloom, the American Council on Science and Health’s Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, recently shared written communications from Drs. Cheng and Gallagher that make it difficult to see any logical reason to object to their participation on the panel.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR)

Since he became president-elect of the AAPM at the end of 2016, Dr. Cheng has had no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, to ensure Pain Medicine’s editorial independence, Dr. Gallagher voluntarily ended his relationships — consulting or advisory— with the industry when he became editor-in-chief more than 10 years ago.

Ironically, the AAPM has long advocated for alternatives to opioids and generally supported the CDC guideline. However, they did have concerns about lack of evidence for some of the CDC’s recommendations. Other organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), have also criticized components of the CDC guideline.

Wyden has previously lodged a similar complaint with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, also challenging members selected for an FDA advisory panel because of a perceived conflict of interest. Following his complaint, Dr. Mary Lynn McPherson, professor at Maryland University School of Medicine, and Dr. Gregory Terman, who was the president of the American Pain Society, were removed from the panel. Here again, neither Dr. McPherson nor Dr. Terman personally received funds from Pharma. The University of Maryland and the American Pain Society, with which they were associated, did.

If Wyden’s reasoning were taken to its logical conclusion, no member of the AMA or any professional organization of pain experts critical of the CDC opioid guideline would be an acceptable member of the advisory panel. Also, most university faculty members would be disqualified because their universities accept funding, in one form or another, from industry.

Some people assume that any association with industry must create bias and cause conflicts of interest. Perhaps so, but that does not apply to the people Wyden is trying to silence. Further, membership in a professional association or serving as a faculty member of a university that receives industry support should not necessarily disqualify an individual to make an important contribution to committees. The goal should be to seek out the most qualified individuals.

There is danger associated with Wyden’s persistent efforts to purge advisory panels of members who have expressed views he doesn’t share. In essence, eliminating people with differing views from advisory panels stacks the deck. It creates a special-interest group that is empowered to influence policy without having to consider differing opinions. The irony is that this very attempt to limit bias creates bias.

Prohibiting experts with no direct connections to industries, like Drs. Cheng, Gallagher, McPherson and Teman, from participating on advisory panels seems to be a punitive gesture. Physicians and researchers, such as these four individuals, who actually care for patients are uniquely equipped to help advisory committees set best practices for pain management. And these panels cannot afford to lose the expertise that these individuals can provide.

If the vetting process includes removing all potential conflicts of interest, then it should also flag anyone who has ties to insurance, including Medicare. Clearly, insurance companies have a financial interest in which treatments are recommended.

Today, Wyden and others are calling to ban anyone with direct or indirect ties to Pharma from serving as a government adviser. Tomorrow, another industry could be targeted. For example, people who work in energy or university researchers who receive industry grants to study the weather might not be permitted to advise the government on climate change. This would likely mean the committees would be comprised of the least knowledgeable individuals.

Hopefully, the HHS and other governmental bodies will consider viewpoints from a broad swath of qualified experts and not just those whose perspectives they endorse. A functioning democracy must value and listen to all views.  

Lynn Webster.jpg

Lynn Webster, MD, is a senior editor at Pain Medicine. He is also a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with pharmaceutical companies. Webster is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

You can find him 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 represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Sessions Creates New Task Force to Target Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced the creation of a new task force targeting manufacturers and distributors of opioid pain medication, as well as physicians and pharmacies engaged in the “unlawful” prescribing of opioids.

“We are attacking this crisis at its root: the diversion and overprescription of opioid painkillers,” Sessions said at a news conference. “We will use criminal penalties.  We will use civil penalties.  We will use whatever tools we have to hold people accountable for breaking our laws.”

Sessions also said the Justice Department would file a “statement of interest” in hundreds of lawsuits filed by states, counties and cities seeking to recover billions of dollars in damages from opioid manufacturers who used deceptive marketing practices. Such a statement could result in the federal government joining as a party in the lawsuits and recovering damages.

Jeff Sessions.jpg

Sessions said the government had borne “substantial costs” as a result of the opioid crisis, including $4 billion paid by Medicare for opioid pain medication in 2016.

“The hard-working taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by those whose illegal activity contributed to those costs.  And we will go to court to ensure that the American people receive the compensation they deserve,” Sessions said.

“These are not our last steps.  We will continue to attack the opioid crisis from every angle.  And we will continue to work tirelessly to bring down the number of opioid prescriptions, reduce the number of fatal overdoses, and to protect the American people.”

Sessions’ announcement avoided any mention of the growing scourge of black market opioids, such as heroin, illicit fentanyl and counterfeit medication, which are now responsible for most overdose deaths. He also did not acknowledge that opioid prescribing has been declining for several years and that less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

The new task force – called the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force -- will include senior officials from the Attorney General’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration. It appears to be focused solely on prescription opioids.

“The PIL Task Force will use the criminal and civil tools available under the Controlled Substances Act against doctors, pharmacies, and others that break the law,” the DOJ said in a statement.

Sessions directed the task force to improve coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services – which includes the FDA, CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) – in sharing healthcare data to identify “patterns of fraud related to the opioid epidemic.”

The Attorney General's single-minded focus on pain medication as the cause of the opioid crisis has angered many pain patients and advocates.

"I am operating on the assumption that this country prescribes too many opioids," Sessions said during a speech earlier this month. "People need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.”

“I hope Sessions falls down, hits his head and breaks a hip and has to take two aspirin and get over it,” wrote one PNN reader.

“Jeff Sessions is an instrument of hate. He has succeeded in driving a wedge through the most sacred trusts -- the relationships between doctors and patients. Doctors now fear and loathe their patients for putting their licenses at risk, and patients fear and loathe their doctors for abandoning their compassionate care plans,” wrote another reader.

"This is exactly why we don't need, a group of people that know nothing about what they are making laws for. Jeff Sessions, if you or one of your family had Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, you would never have made a fool out of yourself with your aspirin remarks," said another.

New Federal Task Force to Address Opioid Prescribing

By Pat Anson, Editor

The federal government is forming another advisory panel to study and develop "best practices" for treating acute and chronic pain. And for the first time, the feds are seeking nominations from the public for members to serve on the panel, who would represent pain patients and pain management experts.

The Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force was authorized by the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 – also known as the CARA Act – a landmark bill signed into law last year to address the nation's addiction and overdose crisis.

While much of CARA is focused on preventing and treating opioid addiction, the law also calls for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to form a task force to recommend solutions to “gaps or inconsistencies” in pain management policies among federal agencies.

bigstock-Health-Care-Challenge-39408331.jpg

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense all have different regulations and guidelines for opioid medication.

“This Task Force represents a critical piece of HHS’s five-point strategy to defeat the opioid epidemic, which includes advancing the practice of pain management,” HHS Secretary Tom Price said in a news release.

“Top experts in pain management, research, addiction and recovery can help us reassess how we handle the serious problem of pain in America.”

The task force could have as many as 30 members representing a broad spectrum of interests in pain management, according to a notice being published in the Federal Register:

The members of the Task Force shall include currently licensed and practicing physicians, dentists, and non-physician prescribers; currently licensed and practicing pharmacists and pharmacies; experts in the fields of pain research and addiction research, including adolescent and young adult addiction; experts on the health of, and prescription opioid use disorders in, members of the Armed Forces and veterans; and experts in the field of minority health.

The Members of the Task Force shall also include… representatives of pain management professional organizations; the mental health treatment community; the addiction treatment community, including individuals in recovery from substance use disorder; pain advocacy groups, including patients; veteran service organizations; groups with expertise on overdose reversal, including first responders; State medical boards; and hospitals.

Members will also be appointed to represent Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, Office of National Drug Control Policy, and “relevant HHS agencies.” The latter most likely includes the FDA and CDC. The Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency in the Department of Justice, will apparently not have a representative on the task force.

Pain patients and pain management experts have been poorly represented – and in some cases excluded – from previous federal advisory panels that addressed opioid prescribing and addiction. Some panel meetings were also closed to the public.

President Trump’s opioid commission, for example, includes three governors, a former congressman, and a Harvard professor who has been a longtime critic of opioid prescribing. No patients, pain management experts or practicing physicians were appointed, and the commission only heard testimony from addiction treatment advocates during its one public meeting.

That was better than the CDC, which held no public hearings while preparing the initial draft of its opioid prescribing guideline in 2015. As PNN has reported, the “Core Expert Group” and various stakeholders that advised the CDC were dominated by special interest groups and addiction treatment specialists, including five board members of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an anti-opioid activist group. Only after a public outcry and threats of a lawsuit did the agency delay the release of the guideline, seek public comment and form a new advisory panel.

Are you interested in becoming a member of the new task force on pain management or know someone who might?

Information on how to nominate individuals – including self-nominations -- can be found by clicking here. Applications are due by Wednesday, September 27. All nominations must be submitted via email to the attention of Vanila Singh, MD, Chief Medical Officer at PainTaskforce@hhs.gov.

Members of the task force who are not government employees will receive per diem pay and reimbursement for travel expenses. All task force meetings will be open to the public.