Why America's Opioid Crisis Is Really a Drug Crisis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new report from the CDC challenges much of the conventional thinking about the opioid crisis, particularly the role played by prescription opioids. Other medications can be even more risky.

For example, twice as many Americans overdosed on the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax) in 2017 than those who died after taking hydrocodone (Vicodin).

Gabapentin (Neurontin), a pain reliever thought to be safer than opioids, was linked to more fatal overdoses than tramadol (Ultram).

And here’s a shocker: the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is the 10th deadliest drug in the United States.

CDC researchers say illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine were involved in far more overdoses than any opioid medication. And methadone, an addiction treatment drug that’s supposed to prevent overdoses, was linked to more drug deaths than hydrocodone.

Only three opioid pain medications — oxycodone, morphine and hydrocodone — made the top 10 list of drugs involved in 2017 overdoses.

TOP 10 DRUGS INVOLVED IN 2017 OVERDOSES

SOURCE: CDC

CDC researchers used a text analysis to scan electronic death certificates to find which drugs were most commonly involved in overdoses. The methodology is imperfect, since it includes drugs that were not necessarily the cause of death, but it provides a more thorough picture of which drugs are driving America’s overdose crisis.

The analysis also uncovered distinct regional differences. Deaths from heroin in 2017 were highest in New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic states, while methamphetamine was the deadliest drug in most of the West, Southwest and Mountain states.

The 2017 analysis is likely already dated, as counterfeit medications made with illicit fentanyl have caused hundreds of overdose deaths this year on the west coast, from San Diego to Seattle.     

Doctors Targeted for Opioid Prescribing

While legal prescription opioids are not involved in most drug overdoses, they continue to be the focus of the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies, which mine prescription drug databases looking for signs of suspicious prescribing.

We reported this week on the case of a California pain doctor who paid a $125,000 fine to settle DOJ allegations that he “illegally prescribed opioids.”

“It was extortion and there’s nothing I was able to do about it. It’s sad and pathetic,” said Dr. Roger Kassendorf.

Federal prosecutors built their case against Kassendorf by analyzing prescription data to identify five of his patients who were on relatively high doses of opioids. None of the five were harmed or overdosed while under the care of Kassendorf, who admits his medical records could have been better. He settled to avoid a more expensive court fight.

It’s a familiar story to other doctors who’ve been targeted by regulators or law enforcement.

“If you study every board case and every indictment, they claim inadequate medical records. It’s their fall back in every case, so in case they lose on the facts, they can save face by being the documentation police,” said Dr. Mark Ibsen, a Montana primary care physician. “As with overprescribing, they never define what under-documentation is.”

Ibsen was initially accused by the Montana medical board of overprescribing opioids, but his medical license was suspended for inadequate medical records. Ibsen had to go to court to get the suspension overturned.

“The prescription drug registry is an excellent document in support of the physician. Given that it is a database available to all physicians in each state, it is hard to claim inadequate documentation for any physician,” Ibsen said.

“There are many doctors and nurse practitioners targeted by law enforcement solely because of the amount of opioids they prescribe. This is inappropriate. No one can assess the quality of care by just looking at the amount of drugs a provider prescribes,” says Dr. Lynn Webster, a pain management specialist and PNN columnist. 

“Providers are often forced to accept plea agreements to avoid incarceration, because they don't have the resources to fight the system. They will often do this to protect their families. There are bad doctors who should be put away, but most are trying to do the best they can within a system that is biased against people in pain and opioids.”

The pressure on physicians is so intense that many have lowered doses or stopped prescribing opioids altogether. That’s forcing pain patients to seek treatment with other doctors — who then run the risk of being flagged as a “high prescriber” if they accept new patients who need opioids.

DEA Seeks to Cut Inventories of Opioid Medication

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has announced plans to significantly reduce inventories of opioid pain medication and other controlled substances that drug manufacturers are allowed to maintain. The inventory reductions are in addition to cuts in the production of opioids that the DEA is seeking in 2020.

The proposed regulations, published this week in the Federal Register, would limit “excess quantities of medications” being stored in inventory that might be vulnerable to diversion. Other rule changes would tighten DEA oversight of the manufacturing and distribution of controlled substances.

Under current regulations, drug companies are allowed to keep inventories on up to 50% of their annual sales quota for Schedule I and II controlled substances. That would be reduced to 30% under the proposed rules.

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“Practically speaking, this equates to a reduction from half of a year's sales supply allowed to be held as inventory to nearly four months,” the DEA said.

The agency said the smaller drug inventory “is not expected to increase the likelihood of drug shortages,” because more manufacturers are available to increase production if shortages develop.

“The DEA believes a reduction of inventory allowance to 30%, with flexibility to produce up to 45% at any given point in a year, would have minimal impact on registrants while continuing to provide adequate inventory for registrants to respond to fluctuations in demand in pharmaceutical markets,” the agency said.

Last year the DEA allowed drug manufacturers to increase the production of injectable opioids after shortages developed at U.S. hospitals. The shortages became so acute that some hospitals were forced to use acetaminophen and muscle relaxants to treat surgery and trauma pain.

The FDA still has morphine, hydromorphone and fentanyl solutions on its list of drug shortages and there are anecdotal reports of hospitals continuing to ration injectable opioids. 

‘You Are Hurting Pain Patients’

The public has 60 days to comment on the DEA’s inventory proposal. The comments posted so far are mostly from pain patients critical of previous actions by the DEA.

“Why, why, why do you all keep taking meds from people? You are hurting the pain patients who need this medication. Start taking the drugs off the streets not from our doctors,” wrote Christy Ashford.

“The DEA has waged a war against the sickest and weakest members of American society,” wrote Kirsten Klang. “They know that almost all of the fatalities have to do with the integration of counterfeit fentanyl than any other chemical. Yet, the DEA clamps down where it's easy to do so... even if it's wrong... just because it's easy!”

“I would like to know why the DEA thinks it needs more power over the United States citizens. I mean really, don’t they think that they have tormented enough doctors and their patients through this so-called opioid crisis?” wrote Sheryl Cox. “They say that they have no control over the prescriptions that our doctors give us, and that is an outright lie. They do control our doctors by arresting them and prosecuting them needlessly, sending them to prison, and most do not deserve this kind of treatment and abuse.”

The DEA began cutting the supply of opioid medication in 2016 during the Obama administration. The trend has accelerated under President Trump, who pledged to reduce the supply of opioids by a third.

Last month, the DEA proposed further cuts in the supply of hydrocodone, oxycodone and three other opioid painkillers classified as Schedule II controlled substances. If approved, the 2020 production quotas would amount to a 60% decrease in the supply of hydrocodone and a 48% percent cut in the supply of oxycodone since 2016.

Cuts in the supply of prescription opioids have coincided with a sharp increase in overdoses from counterfeit medication. In recent months, hundreds of people have died after taking “Mexican Oxy” – counterfeit oxycodone pills made with illicit fentanyl – which are being trafficked in the U.S. from coast to coast.

Pain Doctor on DOJ Settlement: ‘It Was Extortion’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A southern California doctor who paid a $125,000 fine to settle allegations of illegal opioid prescribing says federal prosecutors threatened to ruin his practice and reputation if he didn’t pay up.

“They could care less if I was innocent or guilty. They wanted to see how much they could gouge out of me,” said Dr. Roger Kasendorf, an osteopathic physician who specializes in pain management in La Jolla. “They tried getting $24 million from me until they saw my bank account. I had to hire a good lawyer and pay them too.

“It was extortion and there’s nothing I was able to do about it. It’s sad and pathetic.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego announced the settlement last week in a press release, alleging that Kasendorf “illegally prescribed opioids to his patients.”

“This investigation arose from data analytics tools which allow the Department of Justice to perform a variety of functions, including identifying statistical outliers, such as which doctors prescribe the highest opioid dosages and which doctors prescribe combinations of opioids and other drugs known to increase the risk of addiction, abuse, and overdose,” the office said in a statement.

“Based on the investigation, the United States contends that Dr. Kasendorf wrote prescriptions for opioids, including fentanyl, that were not issued for a legitimate medical purpose and while not acting in the usual course of his professional practice in violation the Controlled Substances Act and the False Claims Act.”

The DOJ statement makes no mention of any patients being harmed or overdosing while under Kasendorf’s care, and no formal criminal charges were filed against him.

Kasendorf says the DOJ’s case was based on inadequate medical records he kept on five of his sickest patients, who were prescribed relatively high doses of opioids for pain. One of the patients has since died from cancer.

“I didn’t know my EMR (electronic medical records) very well. I didn’t keep good notes. And as a result, they went through my notes and said, ‘Oh look you didn’t do this and you didn’t do this.’ I did, but I kept poor documentation,” Kasendorf told PNN.

“Nowadays, if you see any of my notes over the last three years, they’re perfect. But back in the day I didn’t have great notes.”

DR. ROGER KASENDORF

DR. ROGER KASENDORF

Kasendorf has a simple explanation for why he agreed to settle rather than defend himself in court.

“It was cheaper to pay it than defend it. So, I just paid it,” he said. “If I didn’t settle, they said they would call the DEA and then the state (medical) board. That’s what they said. ‘If you don’t settle, we’re going to make it a lot worse for you.’   

“If I defend myself, I’m risking my (medical) license, even though I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. Now I’m dealing with three separate entities and then I can’t work anymore. So I almost had no choice but to settle.”

“Without reviewing the medical records, I cannot assess the fairness of this outcome,” says attorney Michael Barnes, who is managing partner at DCBA Law & Policy, a law firm that advises healthcare providers. 

“If the physician were merely a big-data outlier because he took on patients with the most complex needs, and if his prescribing were CSA (Controlled Substances Act) compliant, then the behavior of the federal government would fall squarely under the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of extortion.

That legal dictionary defines extortion this way: “Any oppression by color or pretense of right, and particularly the exaction by an officer of money, by color of his office, either when none at all is due, or not so much is due.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dylan Aste, who led the case against Kasendorf, did not respond to a request for comment. As for the doctor’s claim about extortion, a DOJ spokesperson told PNN, “We’re not going to have any comment about that.”

DOJ Threatens Criminal Prosecution

Kasendorf is the latest example of the DOJ’s heavy-handed tactics in fighting the opioid crisis. Dozens of doctors around the country have been arrested and prosecuted for illegal opioid prescribing, many of them targeted by DOJ task forces that use prescription drug databases to identify high-dose prescribers.

"Sometimes the only difference between a doctor and a drug dealer is a white coat," U.S. Attorney Jay Town told reporters after federal raids in April that resulted in criminal charges against 60 practitioners in seven states.

Those cases may be legitimate, but hundreds of doctors who face no charges are still being harassed by federal prosecutors – not because their patients became addicted or overdosed – but because their names turned up in a database search.

In February, U.S Attorneys in Wisconsin sent letters to 160 high-dose prescribers in the state, warning them that “prescribing opioids without a legitimate medical purpose could subject them to enforcement action, including criminal prosecution.” 

The DOJ treats controlled-medication prescribers, especially big-data outliers, as though they are guilty unless proven innocent.
— Michael Barnes, attorney

Similar warning letters have been sent to doctors in Georgia, Massachusetts and other states.

“The DOJ treats controlled-medication prescribers, especially big-data outliers, as though they are guilty unless proven innocent,” said Barnes. “Detailed medical records are the only affordable way for a provider to prove his innocence — or at least make the prosecutor think twice about proceeding with criminal charges.”

Although the DOJ lacked credible evidence that any of Kasendorf’s patients were harmed by his care, the lack of detailed medical records was enough to intimidate the doctor into settling on the advice of his attorney. 

“Dr. Kasendorf’s ability to provide high quality pain management to those in need of treatment never was questioned. No charges ever were filed against Dr. Kasendorf,” said attorney Robert Frank. “The government’s allegations arose from an incomplete story of Dr. Kasendorf’s care for a few patients.  No patients suffered any adverse outcomes or complications from his care.   

“Economically, it made sense for Dr. Kasendorf to put an end to yet another Government pursuit of a physician successfully treating patients for true chronic pain problems, in what now has become an opiophobia world brought on by the overzealous promotion of opioids by pharmaceutical companies and misuse of them by relatively few physicians, Dr. Kasendorf excluded.“ 

‘Glad I Found Dr. Kasendorf’

Kasendorf continues to practice medicine and remains in good standing with the Osteopathic Medical Board of California. The board has no record of any disciplinary actions, malpractice judgments or citations against him.

Online reviews of Kasendorf by patients are largely positive.  

“I am so glad I found Dr. Kasendorf. I have dealt with debilitating neck pain for years. Dr. K treated my neck and my pain not only went away, but my headaches and numbness in my fingers went away also. He is very good at what he does,” wrote Gina in a Yelp review.  

“Dr. Kasendorf is one of the most caring pain management doctors I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of them. He is truly empathetic towards his patients which is very hard to find. He is very strict about his opiate contract rules, but most pain management doctors are nowadays,” wrote Natalie. 

“He fired me from treatment with opiates despite a chronic painful condition,” wrote Gary, who said Kasendorf cut his opioid medication in half and then dropped him for being non-compliant.

“He is afraid the DEA is going to threaten his practice. Suggest you find an MD with the integrity to stand by his patients and stand by his past decision to prescribe opiates.” 

Guilt by Association 

Federal prosecutors initially became interested in Kasendorf not because of his prescribing practices, but because of his association with Insys Therapetics, a controversial Arizona drug maker.  

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Insys’ founder and four former executives were recently convicted of bribing doctors with millions of dollars in kickbacks to prescribe the company’s flagship product: Subsys, a potent fentanyl spray that costs about $5,000 for a single day’s supply.

Subsys is only FDA approved for the treatment of cancer pain, but like other drugs it can be prescribed off-label for other pain conditions. Because of its high cost, Medicare and other insurers often wind up paying for Subsys.

Some doctors were paid lucrative speaking fees by Insys to promote Subys, while others were wined and dined at upscale restaurants or taken to a strip club for free lap dances.   

Kasendorf was a promotional speaker and consultant for Insys from 2013 to 2017. For that he was paid over $167,000, according to ProPublica.

“I was starting my practice. I had no money. The fact I was able to earn money through speaking was a miracle for me. That’s what kept me afloat and my family when I first moved here,” said Kasendorf, who moved to California from the east coast after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

“And I was actually good at it. They wanted me to go all over the place because they felt I did a good job and was very thorough. I made it entertaining. I’m a very good speaker and I’m very proud of that.”

In addition to Insys, Kasendorf also did promotional speaking and consulting for several other drug companies, including Purdue Pharma, Egalet, Pfizer, Pernix and Indivior. But it was his work for Insys that federal prosecutors focused on.

“I never took bribes. I never got lap dances or all this stuff they were talking about,” Kasendorf told PNN. “This company did a lot of bad things and I completely agree. The problem is their product happens to be very, very good.”  

Subsys was so effective at pain relief that Kasendorf prescribed it to all five patients who were flagged by DOJ investigators.

After all this time and all this effort, I think DOJ was upset I didn’t have more money.
— Dr. Roger Kasendorf

It’s not the first time the DOJ has gone after a doctor for prescribing Subsys and making speeches for Insys. In 2017, the DEA raided the home and clinic of Dr. Forest Tennant, alleging that he took kickbacks from Insys and ran a “drug trafficking organization.” Like Kasendorf, no charges were filed against Tennant, who decided to retire on the advice of his attorneys rather than fight a protracted legal case.    

According to Kasendorf, the DOJ initially wanted him to pay a $24 million fine, but prosecutors settled for far less.

“They were so upset when they saw they could only get $125,000. But I sent them all my records and they could see I literally had no money in the bank,” said Kasendorf. “I had to borrow $100,000 from my parents to pay them.

“They almost put me out of business. But after all this time and all this effort, I think DOJ was upset I didn’t have more money.”

Study Finds Only 1.3% of Overdose Victims Had Opioid Prescription

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s long been a popular belief that prescription opioids fueled the nation’s opioid crisis and play a major role in overdose deaths. The CDC’s 2016 opioid guideline says as much.

“Sales of opioid pain medication have increased in parallel with overdose deaths,” the guideline states. “Having a history of an opioid prescription is one of many factors that increase risk for overdose.”

But a new study by researchers in Massachusetts has turned that theory on its head. Prescription opioids are usually not involved in overdoses. And even when they are, the overdose victim rarely has an active prescription for them – meaning the medications were diverted, stolen or bought on the street.  

“Commonly the medication that people are prescribed is not the one that’s present when they die. And vice versa. The people who died with a prescription opioid like oxycodone in their toxicology screen often don’t have a prescription for it,” says lead author Alexander Walley, MD, a researcher at Boston Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Walley and his colleagues analyzed nearly 3,000 opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts from 2013 to 2015, a period when heroin overdoses were surging and the first wave of illicit fentanyl was entering the black market.

Toxicology screens showed that multiple drugs were involved in most of the overdoses, with heroin detected in 61% of the deaths and fentanyl in 45% of them.

Prescription opioids alone were detected in only 16.5% of the overdoses.

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The researchers didn’t stop there. They wanted to know if the people who died had prescriptions for the opioid medications that killed them. To their surprise, only 1.3% of them did.  

“We were able to link individuals who died of an overdose to their prescription monitoring program records.  So we could see how many people who died of an opioid overdose had been prescribed a medication at the time of their death. It turns out that was a minority of the patients,” Walley told PNN.

“If it were only the opioids we prescribed that were killing people, then we would have a perfect match between what we prescribed and what people were dying from. But that only happens 1.3% of the time.”

Rx Opioid Myths Exposed

Walley’s study, published in the journal of Public Health Reports, is one of the first to compare overdose toxicology reports with data collected in Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs). The findings strongly suggest that patients with legitimate prescriptions rarely overdose. And they provide a more nuanced and detailed view of what we usually hear about opioid-related overdoses.

For example, only 6% of those who died with oxycodone in their system had an active prescription for it, meaning the other 94% were taking oxycodone that was diverted or perhaps leftover from an old prescription. Active prescriptions for tramadol, morphine, hydrocodone and hydromorphone were found in less than 1% of the people who died with the drugs in their system. 

Interestingly, active prescriptions for two opioids used to treat addiction --- methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) – were found in about 3% of overdoses linked to the drugs.

Massachusetts pain patient David Wieland says the study findings confirm what he has long believed about the opioid crisis.

“The results of this study show that PROP (Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing) and the anti-opioid zealots have been misleading the public for years, as it completely blows the myths they have been spinning out of the water,” Wieland said. “For years they have constantly blamed the majority of these overdose deaths on prescription pain medication. Even as prescribing numbers decreased and overdoses only skyrocketed, they still pushed forward with their lies and propaganda.”

Wieland says his own doctor bought into the myths, insisting that 75% of all overdose victims were pain patients who died by taking their opioid medication as prescribed.

“This was his excuse to further take me completely off my medication,” said Wieland. “Think I'm going to have to send this study to him along with a note reminding him about the supposed facts he tried to shove down my throat.”

Dr. Walley says regulators and public health officials should also take note, and that public education campaigns should not solely focus on the risks of prescription opioids. The CDC’s Rx Awareness campaign, for example, warns people about the abuse of prescription opioids, but says nothing at all about illicit opioids.

“Policy makers may too narrowly focus efforts on preventing the misuse of prescription opioids and devote inadequate resources to addressing heroin and illicit fentanyl use,” Walley said. “I think we can see that we don’t just have a prescription opioid problem. We have an illicit opioid problem. And I think our policy should reflect that.”

8 of 10 Doctors Won’t Take New Patients on Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly three quarters of primary care doctors (72%) worry that chronic pain patients will use illicit drugs if they lose access to prescription opioids, according to a new survey by Quest Diagnostics. And 77% believe the stigma surrounding drug addiction impairs patient care.

Despite those concerns about patient stigma and illegal drug use, the online survey of 500 physicians found that 8 out of 10 are reluctant to take on new patients who are currently prescribed opioids.

“Quest Diagnostics undertook this research so that we could provide insights into the evolving drug crisis and the potential role of physicians’ perspectives about their patients in drug misuse and use disorders,” said Harvey Kaufman, MD, Senior Medical Director, Quest Diagnostics.

“We found that primary care physicians, who are on the front lines of the drug epidemic, are well-intentioned but under-prepared and may miss some of the drug misuse risks affecting their patients.”

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Quest compared the survey results to an analysis of 4.4 million drug tests ordered by physicians for patients prescribed opioids and other controlled substances. The findings suggest that many physicians have a poor understanding of their patients’ drug use.

For example, Quest found that over half of patients (51%) showed signs of misusing a prescribed drug, yet 72% of physicians believe their patients take controlled medications as prescribed.

Quest broadly defines drug “misuse” by including the absence of a prescribed medication. Many patients choose not to take a drug because they can’t afford it, don’t like its side effects, or feel they don’t need it. Patients required to have drug tests are also not representative of the general population.

Other key findings:

  • 62% of doctors believe the opioid crisis will morph into a prescription drug crisis

  • 24% of patients combined legal medications with other non-prescribed drugs or illicit substances

  • 95% of doctors are confident in their ability discuss drug misuse with patients, but only 55% actually do

  • 70% of doctors wish they had more training on how to taper patients off opioids.

  • 75% of doctors wish they had more training on addiction

The Quest lab tests also found concerning results about the misuse of gabapentin (Neurontin), an anti-convulsant drug increasingly prescribed to treat pain. Over 13% of patients showed signs of misusing gabapentin in 2018, making it the mostly commonly misused prescription drug.

Nearly 8 out of 10 doctors (78%) said they often prescribe gabapentin as an alternative to opioids, but only 34% were concerned about its misuse.

“A vast majority of physicians recognize the need for more tools to prevent opioid drug misuse and substance use disorders, and that is why many are tightening opioid prescribing and turning to gabapentin as an alternative,” said pain specialist Jeffrey Gudin, MD, Senior Medical Advisor, Quest Diagnostics.

“While gabapentin may not have opioids’ addictive potential, it can exaggerate euphoric effects when combined with opioids or anxiety medications. This drug mixing is dangerous.”

Gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica) belong to a class of nerve medication known as gabapentinoids. A recent study found gabapentinoids increase the risk of suicide, overdose, traffic accidents and injuries in younger people. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years in the United States, where they are often promoted in prescribing guidelines as safer alternatives to opioids.

Feds Warn About Rapid Opioid Tapers

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Federal health officials are once again urging doctors not to rapidly decrease or abruptly stop prescribing opioid medication to chronic pain patients.

In an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), three federal health officials warn that sudden opioid tapering significantly increases the risk of harm to patients, resulting in increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

“There are concerning reports of patients having opioid therapy discontinued abruptly and of clinicians being unwilling to accept new patients who are receiving opioids for chronic pain, which may leave patients at risk for abrupt discontinuation and withdrawal symptoms,” the editorial warns.

The editorial was written by Deborah Dowell, MD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wilson Compton, MD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Brett Girior, MD, of the U.S. Public Health Service. Dowell is one of the co-authors of the CDC’s controversial opioid guideline, which has been widely used as an excuse by doctors, insurers and pharmacies to impose mandatory limits on prescribing.  

Even before its release in March 2016, pain patients and advocates warned the CDC guideline would result in rapid tapering, patient abandonment and suicide.

But not until April of this year – after three years of needless deaths and suffering -- did the FDA and CDC start urging doctors to be more cautious in their tapering.

It then took another six months for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to produce a 6-page guide for doctors on how to taper patients.

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“The HHS guide and current guidelines emphasize that tapering should be individualized and should ideally proceed slowly enough to minimize opioid withdrawal symptoms and signs. Physical dependence occurs as early as a few days after consistent opioid use, and when opioids have been prescribed continuously for longer than a few days, sudden discontinuation may precipitate significant opioid withdrawal,” the JAMA editorial warns.

The HHS tapering guide urges doctors not to dismiss pain patients and to share decision making with them when developing a taper program.

“If the current opioid regimen does not put the patient at imminent risk, tapering does not need to occur immediately. Take time to obtain patient buy-in,” the guideline cautions. “There are serious risks to non-collaborative tapering in physically dependent patients, including acute withdrawal, pain exacerbation, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, ruptured trust, and patients seeking opioids from high-risk sources.”

The guide suggests tapers of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although slow tapers of 10% a month may be appropriate for patients taking opioids for more than a year.

A recent study of tapering in Vermont found only 5 percent of 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. Many of those patients were hospitalized for an “opioid-related adverse event” -- a medical code that can mean anything from severe withdrawal symptoms to acute respiratory failure.

Another recent study at a Seattle pain clinic found that tapered patients had an unusually high death rate, with some dying from suspected overdoses.

Meanwhile, not a single word of the CDC opioid guideline has changed since federal health officials finally acknowledged it was harming patients and needed clarification.

Health Canada Supports Use of Prescription Heroin to Treat Addiction

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Canada’s national health agency -- Health Canada – is supporting efforts to expand the use of pharmaceutical-grade heroin in treating opioid addiction.

A treatment center in Vancouver, BC is currently the only clinic in North America that provides diacetylmorphine -- prescription heroin – to opioid addicts. Other clinics may soon follow, after last month’s publication of the first clinical guideline for using injectable diacetylmorphine and hydromorphone to treat people with severe opioid use disorder.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, making it illegal to prescribe for any purpose. But pharmaceutical grade heroin is legal in Canada, UK and several other European countries, where studies have found it is an effective way of treating — or at least managing — opioid addiction.

In a statement to PNN, Health Canada said it supports using diacetylmorphine to help create a safe drug supply for addicts who use dangerous street drugs and have failed at other forms of treatment.

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“Many stakeholders have been calling for a secure and predictable supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids as an alternative to the contaminated illegal drug supply. Studies have shown that prescription opioids, such as injectable hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine (prescription-grade heroin), have been successful in helping to stabilize and support the health of some patients with opioid use disorder,” said Jennifer Novak, Executive Director of Health Canada’s Opioid Response Team.

“Health Canada has taken steps towards this objective, including making prescription opioids used in the treatment of severe opioid disorder more easily accessible to healthcare practitioners, reducing regulatory barriers, funding guidelines for opioid use disorder treatment, and supporting safe supply pilot projects in British Columbia.”

Pain patients and their advocates bristle at Health Canada’s willingness to liberalize the use of heroin to treat addiction – while it supports policies that limit access to opioid pain medication.

"While it's necessary to make every effort to keep those suffering from substance abuse alive, why has this come at the cost of pain patients' lives? Health Canada blamed these patients for overdose deaths they played no part in and consequently they can no longer access their necessary medicine. The most severe have been sent spiraling back into more suffering, disability, suicide, and to purchase street drugs out of sheer desperation,” says Ann Marie Gaudon, a PNN columnist, pain patient and advocate. 

“Health Canada acts like a hero trying to save those addicted while simultaneously refusing to admit that they have indeed added to the death toll by adding pain patients. Where is their help? It is nowhere to be seen in the homes of Canada." 

Nearly 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain and Canada has the second highest rate of opioid prescribing in the world.   

In an effort to reduce the supply of prescription opioids, Canada adopted an opioid guideline in 2017 that is very similar to one released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a year earlier. Both guidelines have had a negligible impact on the overdose rate, while pain patients on both sides of the border lost access to opioid medication or had their doses reduced to ineffective levels.

“Health Canada recognizes that some people who live with chronic pain have been unable to access opioid medications when needed to manage their pain,” Novak said. “We know that opioid medications are an important tool in the management of pain for some Canadians and are working with stakeholders and partners to promote opioid prescribing practices that balance the benefits and harms of these medications based on the individual needs of each patient.” 

Asked what Health Canada is doing to improve healthcare for pain patients, Novak said the agency was providing $3 million in funding to improve education in pain management for physicians, nurses, pharmacists and social workers.  

Three million dollars is a tiny fraction of the $253 billion spent on healthcare in Canada in 2018.

"It's a pittance but the very sad part is that it's all going right back into the same people and programs that made this whole mess to begin with,” says Gaudon. “Nothing new, no help on the horizon for those whose lives have been shattered. They talk as if they are doing something but they truly are not. It's pure rubbish."