Bill Would Create 3-Day Limit on Opioids for Acute Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress that would impose a national 3-day limit on opioid prescriptions for acute short-term pain and authorize another $1 billion to subsidize the addiction treatment industry.

The CARA 2.0 Act is a follow-up to the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016. It is sponsored by four Democrats and four Republicans: Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

“The opioid epidemic truly is a national crisis that is affecting families and communities across the country, and in West Virginia, we’ve become far too familiar with its consequences,” Sen. Capito said in a statement. “While we’ve accomplished a lot in terms of drawing attention to the drug epidemic and providing resources to help address it, it’s painfully clear that we still have a long way to go and need to be doing even more.

Several states have already enacted measures to limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain – usually limiting them to five or seven days’ supply. CARA 2.0 would make a 3-day limit mandatory nationwide for “pain with abrupt onset and caused by injury or other process that is not ongoing.”

The bill would exempt patients with chronic pain and cancer, as well as those in hospice and palliative care. It is not clear how the 3-day limit would apply to patients recovering from surgery or for those whose pain lasts longer than 3 days.

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Under the bill the U.S. Attorney General would be authorized not to renew or register the licenses of physicians to prescribe controlled substances if they do not abide by the initial 3-day limit.

It also requires doctors to consult with the prescription drug monitoring database (PDMP) in their state before writing a prescription for a controlled substance to make sure a patient isn’t already getting opioid treatment. Prescribers who repeatedly fall “outside of expected norms or standard practices” would be reported to law enforcement and their state licensing boards.

The latter provision was initially proposed by Sen. Cassidy under the Protection from Overprescribing Act.

"I’m glad the Protection from Overprescribing Act is included in this bill, so law enforcement gets the information they need to identify providers who are overprescribing and fueling this crisis,” said Cassidy, who is a licensed physician.”  “In Louisiana, there is about one opioid prescription for every person. I and other physicians took an oath to first, do no harm. Some doctors are selling these prescriptions for profit. This is doing harm and it must be stopped.”

If passed, the bill raises the penalty for opioid manufacturers who fail to report suspicious orders for opioids from $10,000 to up to $500,000.

States would be allowed waive the limit on the number of patients a physician can treat with buprenorphine (Suboxone), an addiction treatment drug. There is currently a cap of 100 patients per physician.

The bill also seeks to create a national network of addiction treatment facilities, to be funded by $200,000,000 in grants annually from 2019 to 2023. The grants would only be available to large non-profit treatment programs that already have facilities nationwide, such as Phoenix House. 

Sessions Tells Pain Patients to ‘Tough It Out’

By Pat Anson, Editor

Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

That old cliché is finding new life – at least in the mind of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions --- who suggested twice this week that aspirin is the solution to the nation’s opioid crisis.

"I am operating on the assumption that this country prescribes too many opioids," Sessions said during a Wednesday visit to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Tampa. "People need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.”

During his 25-minute speech, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Sessions veered away from his prepared remarks to cite the example of White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly, who refused to take opioid painkillers after recent minor surgery.

"He goes, ‘I’m not taking any drugs,’" Sessions said, drawing a laugh while imitating Kelly. "But, I mean, a lot of people — you can get through these things."

"That remark reflects a failure to recognize the severity of pain of some patients," said Bob Twillman, PhD, executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.

JEFF SESSIONS

JEFF SESSIONS

"It’s an unconscionable remark," Twillman told the Tampa Bay Times. "It further illustrates how out of touch parts of the administration are with opioids and pain management."

Sessions made similar statements Tuesday night at a Heritage Foundation event marking the birthday of President Ronald Reagan.

"Sometimes you just need to take two Bufferin or something and go to bed," said Sessions, who added that his goal in 2018 was to see a continuing decline in opioid prescriptions, which have been falling since 2010.

“We had a 7 percent decline last year in actual prescriptions of opioids. We think doctors are just prescribing too many,” he said. “These pills become so addictive. The DEA says a huge percentage of the heroin addiction starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number. They had it as high as 80 percent. We think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs too.”

Sessions was referring to a single but often-cited survey, which found that most heroin users in addiction treatment also abused prescription opioids. The fact is most addicts try a variety of different substances – such as tobacco, marijuana, alcohol and opioid medication – before moving on to heroin. It is rare for a legitimate patient on legally prescribed opioids to use heroin.  

The Drug Enforcement Administration – an agency that Sessions oversees – has ordered a reduction in the supply of prescription opioids in 2018. That’s in addition to steep cuts in opioid production quotas the DEA imposed in 2017.  The agency ignored dozens of public comments warning that further reductions this year in the opioid supply could create shortages.  

FDA Report Calls Kratom an Opioid

By Pat Anson, Editor

The herbal supplement kratom contains opioids and should not be used to treat any medical condition, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The report seems likely to trigger a renewed effort to classify kratom as an illegal Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act.

“Kratom should not be used to treat medical conditions, nor should it be used as an alternative to prescription opioids. There is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use. And claiming that kratom is benign because it’s ‘just a plant’ is shortsighted and dangerous,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a lengthy statement.

“It’s an opioid that’s associated with novel risks because of the variability in how it’s being formulated, sold and used recreationally and by those who are seeking to self-medicate for pain or who use kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.”

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties.  Millions of Americans have discovered kratom in recent years, using it to treat chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and addiction.

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to list two of kratom’s active ingredients as Schedule I substances. The DEA suspended its plan after a public outcry, and said it would wait for a scheduling recommendation and medical evaluation of kratom from the FDA.

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The new report may prompt the DEA to try again.  In a computer analysis using what the FDA calls Public Health Assessment via Structural Evaluation (PHASE) methodology, FDA researchers identified 25 chemical compounds in kratom that share structural similarities with opioid analgesics such as morphine. Like painkillers, the substances bind to mu-opioid receptors in the brain and – according to the computer models -- act the same way as opioids.

“The data from the PHASE model shows us that kratom compounds are predicted to affect the body just like opioids. Based on the scientific information in the literature and further supported by our computational modeling and the reports of its adverse effects in humans, we feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom, opioids,” Gottlieb said.

FDA Analysis Called ‘Junk Science'

Critics of the FDA analysis say it contains numerous errors and signs of confirmation bias.

"The failure of the FDA to justify its attempt to schedule kratom using traditional and well-accepted scientific methods has apparently driven the FDA to move into the world of junk science.  Using computer modeling is very susceptible to bias in the assumptions the are built into the computer algorithms.  In short, the old adage of 'garbage in – garbage out' applies to such dramatic testing standards," said Dave Herman, chairman of the American Kratom Association (AKA), a pro-kratom consumer group.

In addition to its analysis, the FDA released a detailed report on 36 deaths associated with kratom over the past several years. The agency admits all but one of the overdose deaths involved other drugs and “could not be fully assessed.” There was only one death involving a person who had no prior opioid use.  

“We’re continuing to investigate this report, but the information we have so far reinforces our concerns about the use of kratom. In addition, a few assessable cases with fatal outcomes raise concern that kratom is being used in combination with other drugs that affect the brain, including illicit drugs, prescription opioids, benzodiazepines and over-the-counter medications, like the anti-diarrheal medicine, loperamide,” Gottlieb said.

"It is more of the same useless rhetoric from FDA," says Jane Babin, a molecular biologist who authored a report last year for the AKA that discredited many of the reports linking overdoses to kratom.

"Bottom line:  36 deaths over 3, 5, 7 or more years that they can't prove were caused by kratom, versus 16,000 deaths from killer street opioids," Babin wrote in an email. 

In a survey of 6,150 kratom users by Pain News Network and the AKA, most reported they used kratom as a treatment for chronic pain, depression, anxiety or addiction. Many say the herb is safe, effective and has literally saved their lives

“Kratom is the one thing that has kept me from using opiates and other illegal substances. I've been able to stay clean for 3 years now. It's given me my life back,” one survey respondent wrote.

“Kratom is the only reason I was finally able to end my addiction to hydrocodone. It is nowhere near as potent as hydrocodone, and you can't overdose” said another.

“I've had several friends who have died from heroin overdose. If they knew about kratom they may still be alive today,” wrote another kratom user.

One of the dilemmas faced by the FDA and DEA is that kratom products are currently classified as dietary supplements, and there are few regulatory standards applied to their importation or ingredients. The only requirement for kratom vendors is that they don't make unsubstantiated health claims. Classifying kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance would radically change that, making it a felony to possess or sell kratom, and likely creating an underground black market for the herb.

Montezuma's Revenge: FDA to Limit Diarrhea Pills

By Pat Anson, Editor

Federal efforts to combat the opioid crisis entered a surprising new phase today, with the Food and Drug Administration asking Johnson & Johnson and other drug makers to limit the number of anti-diarrhea pills they sell.

You read that right.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said the “unprecedented and novel action” was needed because Imodium and other over-the-counter formulations of loperamide are being abused by opioid addicts.  

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The FDA wants J&J and other drug makers to limit the number of pills in loperamide packaging so that there are just enough to treat short-term diarrhea, such as traveler’s diarrhea. – also known as Montezuma’s Revenge.

“Abuse of loperamide has been increasing in the United States. When used at extremely high and dangerous doses, it’s seen by those suffering from opioid addiction as a potential alternative to manage opioid withdrawal symptoms or to achieve euphoric effects of opioid use,” Gottlieb said in a statement.

“When higher than recommended doses are taken we’ve received reports of serious heart problems and deaths with loperamide, particularly among people who are intentionally misusing or abusing high doses.”

Last year the FDA added a warning label to loperamide products cautioning consumers not to ingest high doses. The agency believes further safety measures are needed to make it harder for people to buy loperamide in large quantities. The FDA is suggesting that loperamide be sold in packages containing a two day supply of eight 2-milligram capsules. Imodium packages currently contain as many as 42 capsules.

“The abuse of loperamide requires the purchase of extremely large quantities. Often this is done through the purchase of large bottles of loperamide, which is a common configuration in which the pill form of the medication is currently packaged,” said Gottlieb. “Today’s action is intended to change how the product is packaged, to eliminate these large volume containers. We know that many of the bulk purchases of these large volumes are being made online through major online web retailers.”

The FDA is also considering changes in how opioid medication for acute short-term pain is packaged. Several states have enacted laws that require first time prescriptions for acute pain be limited to 5 or 7 days’ supply

“If more immediate release opioid drugs, in particular, were packaged in three or six-day blister packs; then more doctors may opt for these shorter durations of use. Additionally, provided the FDA concluded that there was sufficient scientific support for these shorter durations of use, this could provide the basis for further regulatory action to drive more appropriate prescribing,” Gottlieb said.

Some users of Imodium are unhappy the medication now comes in blister packs – saying the packages are too hard and frustrating to open at an urgent time of need.

“There's nothing worse than having diarrhea and you can't get the package open,” one woman wrote on the Imodium website. “The only way I can get it open is to find a pair of scissors and cut it open. I tried one time to tear it open with my teeth and ended up cutting my lip.”

“Your product inside the box is quite good. I just wonder who convinced Imodium powers that be to change the blister units in which the caplets are packaged. I have almost lost my religion trying to tear open at the suggested/new perforation. It is horrible!” another woman wrote.

“Had to make 3 trips to the bathroom while trying to get the caplet wrapper open, packaging needs changing,” said another reviewer.

Does Genetic Testing for Opioid Addiction Really Work?

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Prescient Medicine recently announced LifeKit Predict, a gene screening test to determine who is at risk for opioid addiction. The company states that it “can identify with 88% specificity that someone may have a risk for opioid dependency” and “provides assurance -- with 97% sensitivity -- that an individual may not have increased genetic risk for opioid dependency.”

Those are strong claims. The idea that medical conditions and behavior can be predicted by gene variants is appealing. But any such test has to answer two questions:

Is it possible in principle? And does it work in practice?

Genes and Behavior

The pathway from gene variant to behavior is very complicated. Research on the genetics of opioid addiction has found “evidence for genetic susceptibility to substance use disorders” in twin studies, but non-genetic factors are known to play a significant role as well.

Moreover, the connection between gene test results and clinically useful information is complicated. Genetic testing often finds pathogenic variants with no clinical significance. A person can be a perfect match for a rare disorder in the most advanced genetic test available but have no symptoms, so at a clinical level that person does not have the disorder. Only in a handful of cases does a specific gene variant lead to a precise fate: Huntington's disease is the standard example in textbooks.

Addiction is generally thought of in terms of the biopsychosocial model of medicine, as Maia Szalavitz explains in her book, Unbroken Brain.

“There are three critical elements to it; the behavior has a psychological purpose; the specific learning pathways involved make it become nearly automatic and compulsive; and it doesn’t stop when it is no longer adaptive,” she wrote.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.”

Thus, genes may play a significant role, but many other factors are also at work. A genetic test to identify an increased risk for opioid addiction is plausible in principle. But non-genetic factors make it tricky in practice.


Real World Performance

Prescient Medicine has not yet validated its product with large-scale testing in the clinical setting. There have been no clinical studies of efficacy, nor real-world reports of success or failure rates with the LifeKit Predict tool. These findings are important to know for effective use.

In research published on LifeKit Predict, Prescient acknowledges that “the use of genetic algorithms to determine predictive risk scores is still a relativey [sic] new science. Prospective, longitudinal studies are needed to better definne [sic] the breadth of the test’s importance."

A prospective trial of chronic pain patients with LifeKit Predict to see who develops opioid use disorder would be optimal. But for a variety of reasons, including ethical considerations, this test may not be practicable. Instead, Prescient could test people on long-term opioid therapy who did not develop opioid use disorder and compare the results with people who did develop opioid use disorder. Findings here would shed light on the validity of the 16 gene alleles that Prescient is using.

For now, Prescient is reporting on sensitivity and specificity. These two terms have a precise meaning in statistics, but the following medical example captures the essentials:

A molar (butterfly) rash is very sensitive for lupus but not very specific. It is rarely seen in any disorder other than lupus, so if a person has it, lupus should be suspected. But it is only seen in about half of people with lupus, so not having a butterfly rash doesn't mean you can rule out lupus.

But the sensitivity and specificity of LifeKit Predict in the ranges given by Prescient represent a significant risk for false positives and false negatives, potentially limiting the real-world value of the test.

GenomeWeb reported that Yale University professor Joel Gelertner, an expert in genetics and addiction, was skeptical that LifeKit’s “predictive power would hold up when applied to larger datasets, and argued that in the absence of better validation, physicians should not use this type of testing."

Further, LifeKit has not been compared with established tools for opioid risk assessment. The Current Opioid Misuse Measure (COMM-9) and the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT) are both simple and familiar instruments for evaluating the major risk factors for opioid use disorder.

Both COMM-9 and ORT are very inexpensive, easy to use, and give results quickly. By contrast, a gene test is expensive and requires weeks to get results. It is not clear at this point if a gene test offers any advantages over these existing instruments.

Opioid addiction risk is at present more readily assessed using tools that are already available and understood. Prescient has developed a novel and intriguing new tool, but still must prove its reliability in clinical settings before the costs and risks of such a test can be justified.

For now it is probably premature to expect this kind of genetic testing to be as useful as it would need to be to be adopted clinically.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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

FDA Warns Promoters of Herbal Addiction Treatments

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is following through on its threat to crackdown on companies selling kratom and other herbal supplements as treatments for opioid addiction and withdrawal.

The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have sent joint warning letters to the distributors of 15 herbal supplements for illegally marketing unapproved products.

“The FDA is increasingly concerned with the proliferation of products claiming to treat or cure serious diseases like opioid addiction and withdrawal,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD. “People who are addicted to opioids should have access to safe and effective treatments and not be victimized by unscrupulous vendors who are trying to capitalize on the opioid epidemic by taking advantage of consumers and selling products with baseless claims.”

The companies used websites or social media to make claims about their products' ability to cure, treat or prevent opioid withdrawal and addiction.

TaperAid, for example, claims its “17 all-natural organic herbs” can relieve symptoms of withdrawal and even reduce tolerance to opioid painkillers.

“Use of TaperAid may increase sensitivity to opioids. You may need to lower your usual intake of opioids to account for reduced tolerance,” the company claimed. “People using short acting opioids (which includes many pain management medications and heroin) will notice a significant lowering of tolerance to their opiate of choice.”

TaperAid’s website and Facebook account have been taken down, although a TaperAid review can still be found on YouTube.

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“Opioid addiction is a serious health epidemic that affects millions of Americans,” said acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen. “Individuals and their loved ones who struggle with this disease need real help, not unproven treatments.”

In addition to the warning letters, the FTC released a “fact sheet” warning consumers about companies that promise miracle cures or fast results.

“Dietary supplements – such as herbal blends, vitamins, and minerals – have not been scientifically proven to ease withdrawal or to treat opioid dependence,” the FTC warned. “Products like Kratom, which some claim can help, are actually not proven treatments, and can be addictive and dangerous to your health.”

The FDA issued a public health advisory about kratom last November, saying there was “no reliable evidence to support the use of kratom as a treatment for opioid use disorder.”

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties.  Millions of Americans have discovered kratom in recent years, and use it to treat addiction, chronic pain, anxiety and depression. The herb is not approved by the FDA for any medical condition. 

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to list kratom’s two active ingredients as Schedule I controlled substances, which would have made it a felony to possess or sell kratom. The DEA suspended its plan after a public outcry, saying it would wait for a scheduling recommendation and medical evaluation of kratom from the FDA. Over a year later, that report has still not been released.

Opioid Commission Member Calls Panel a ‘Charade’

By Pat Anson, Editor

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

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

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

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

PATRICK KENNEDY

PATRICK KENNEDY

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

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

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

COMMISSION on combating drug abuse and the opioid crisis

COMMISSION on combating drug abuse and the opioid crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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