Opioid Crisis Continues to Pressure Physicians, But Patients Bear the Pain



The efforts to crack down on opioids are coming to a head. As a consequence, sufferers are hurting—actually.

Payors and legislators are limiting physicians’ means to prescribe, mentioned Joseph Ranieri, DO, an habit medication and ache specialist who’s medical director of Seabrook House, in Newell, N.J. Moreover, even the place guidelines are absent, the specter of monitoring has many physicians caught between defending their practices and defending their sufferers.

“The pressure on physicians is already intense,” Stefan G. Kertesz, MD, wrote in The Hill (https://thehill.com/?blogs/?pundits-blog/?healthcare/?326095-as-a-physician-i-urge-other-doctors-to-cut-back-on-prescribing). Dr. Kertesz described a 60-year-old continual arthritis affected person who had had a kidney transplant, when her opioid dose was diminished with out her consent—an all too widespread results of the crackdown. “Predictably, she fell apart, as did her adherence to other medications, including ones to protect her kidney. … The threat of losing her kidney compounded the uncontrolled pain of her arthritis,” wrote Dr. Kertesz, affiliate professor within the Division of Preventive Medicine on the University of Alabama School of Medicine, in Birmingham.

The crackdown had been brewing for a lot of the decade, however issues heated up within the spring of 2016, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the “Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain” (MMWR Recomm Rep 2016;65:1-49). The suggestions, the ache physicians who commented on this text principally agree, weren’t unreasonable, though the proof for a lot of was scant, by the CDC’s personal admission. The downside was that they had been oft interpreted to be guidelines, relatively than tips.

For instance, a proposal from the National Committee for Quality Assurance adopted final winter that was seen as creating an incentive for physicians to unilaterally cut back doses amongst sufferers receiving greater than 120 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) of opioids. Eighty ache physicians, together with Dr. Kertesz, responded to that company, stating that such dose reductions had “never been tested in prospective trials and … could actually increase risk to individual patients, as illustrated by scholarly and popular reports of acute withdrawal (with death) … and suicide badociated with incautious unilateral opioid discontinuation or unrelenting pain.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services proposed comparable measures concurrently. However, that proposal seems to have been softened. An company press launch within the spring said requirement to disclaim protection above sure dose limits wouldn’t be carried out for 2018, opposite to the preliminary proposal. This change seems to be in response to a letter signed by 83 professionals, together with 4 who labored on the CDC guideline.

Ironically, the ratcheting down of opioid prescriptions could also be aggravating the issues it was meant to cut back. From 2010 to 2015, overdose deaths involving pure and semisynthetic opioids fell from 29% to 24% of all overdoses. But these had been swamped by the rise of overdose deaths from heroin and artificial opioids, excluding methadone, which tripled to 25% and doubled to 18% of the overall, respectively.

Unfortunately, suicide and medical hurt after an involuntary dose discount “are not usually recorded in any database, and therefore, it is very hard for health authorities to measure the size of this new problem,” Dr. Kertesz mentioned. “All we have now are anecdotes.”

But ache sufferers are significantly susceptible. They die by suicide at twice the speed of the final inhabitants. In 2014, 28,000 took their lives.

Patients Hurting

In March, a yr after launch of the CDC guideline, a web based survey of greater than three,000 sufferers, physicians and well being care suppliers performed by Pain News Network discovered that the rule of thumb had “harmed pain patients, reduced access to pain care, and failed to reduce drug abuse and overdoses,” commented Lynn R. Webster, MD, vice chairman of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences, in Salt Lake City, previous president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and a Pain Medicine News editorial advisory board member.

That survey, Dr. Webster famous in his feedback to Pain News Network, discovered that “over 70% of pain patients say they are no longer prescribed opioid medication or are getting a lower dose. … Eight out of 10 patients say their pain and quality of life are worse.”

In a survey of 72 sufferers with arachnoiditis or Tarlov cyst illness, performed by the Arachnoiditis Society for Awareness and Prevention, barely greater than half mentioned they’d been utterly minimize off from their opioids.

In one other portent, in articles printed with feedback sections, comparable to one within the Boston Globe well being publication STAT by Dr. Kertesz and Adam J. Gordon, MD, some commenters have expressed a need to die by suicide, or have described contemplating it, within the wake of the crackdown. “That suggests we are in some really dangerous territory,” Dr. Kertesz mentioned (www.statnews.com/?2017/?02/?24/?opioids-prescribing-limits-pain-patients/?


Attempts at Control

The medical neighborhood had lengthy undertreated ache. In the early 1990s, physicians, lastly recognizing the issue, turned to opioids in an effort to mitigate that epidemic. Prescriptions rose steadily, tripling at 219 million in 2011.

As prescriptions rose, so did overdoses and deaths from overdoses. “Excessive prescribing without sufficient close monitoring meant that prescriptions received by patients often wound up in others’ hands, through sales, theft or giving them away,” Dr. Kertesz mentioned. Federal information point out that 12.5 million folks misused opioids not less than as soon as in 2015, and that 2 million would qualify as having an habit badysis.

By 2010, the occupation had change into involved, and in 2012, the variety of prescriptions for opioids fell.

The March 2016 CDC guideline hit the media with a splash. Former CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, was quoted saying that “opioids are just as addictive as heroin,” an announcement broadly interpreted as implying that the majority opioid habit originates in ache sufferers, a controversial view.

The guideline is flawed by low-quality proof, mentioned Jeffrey Fudin, PharmD, proprietor and managing editor of PainDr.com, founder and chair of Professionals for Rational Opioid Monitoring & Pharmacotherapy, and co-editor of the Opioids, Substance Abuse and Addictions part of Pain Medicine.

Nonetheless, the CDC was “extremely careful” to not straight mandate dose reductions in sufferers “evaluated as benefiting from opioid prescriptions,” Dr. Kertesz mentioned.


The guideline suggests a 90-MME ceiling, and states that for remedy of acute ache, three days or much less typically suffices, and that greater than seven days isn’t needed.

However, legislators are enshrining these provisions as regulation, and lots of insurers are utilizing them to find out protection.

Ohio, for instance, has proposed laws proscribing major care physicians and dentists to prescribe not more than 50 MME per day, in not more than three-day increments, except they full eight hours of coaching about opioids and habit, and might present remedy for the latter. The invoice presently awaits committee hearings.

Maine laws capped doses at 100 MME, requiring sufferers already on greater doses to be tapered to that stage by July 1, 2017. An estimated 16,000 Mainers are prescribed greater doses, and Patrick Mellor, a lawyer in Rockland representing two continual ache sufferers, mentioned they “would lose substantial functionality by having to taper down,” as would round 1,500 of the 16,000.

But the actual downside, Mr. Mellor mentioned, lies within the authorized language, not within the regulation itself. The Maine laws features a “palliative care exception” to the tapering requirement, Mr. Mellor mentioned. Under the statute, “palliative care” shouldn’t be restricted to finish of life, as a nonlawyer would possibly fairly badume, however consists of treating “a physical injury or condition that substantially affects a patient’s quality of life.”

Nonetheless, the July 1 deadline for tapering is problematic as a result of “the doctors in the state haven’t been adequately informed as to the exceptions to the new law,” Mr. Mellor mentioned. Whereas the doctor of one in every of his purchasers knew to use the palliative care exception, the opposite shopper’s doctor didn’t. Therefore, that shopper’s dose—450 MME for the final 16 years—has already been tapered to 300 MME, a lot to the shopper’s misery.

Among different states which have enacted laws, seven—California, Colorado, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina and Vermont—have mushy limits on doses, which lack drive of regulation, however can be utilized to evaluate a doctor’s apply. Besides Maine, Mbadachusetts and Washington have laborious limits.

Even below mushy limits, “doctors feel it increases liability,” Dr. Fudin mentioned. “And even if the prescriber has documentation, they are being scrutinized. … They can be called on by state regulatory agencies to explain any patients with morphine equivalent daily dosages (MEDD) that fall [beyond] a predetermined limit. … The clinician may reduce the dosage to meet the state MEDD limit because they don’t want to deal with it.”

In Mbadachusetts, former Gov. Deval Patrick banned Zohydro ER (Pernix), the primary extended-release, single-entity hydrocodone. “Eventually, the federal government overturned Gov. Patrick’s ruling, but doctors were still afraid to prescribe it,” Dr. Fudin mentioned.

Washington requires sufferers to be referred to ache specialists if the prescribed MEDD exceeds 120 mg per day. “The trouble is, there aren’t enough pain specialists to go around, and … most prefer interventional procedures and shy away from or refuse to prescribe medication therapies,” Dr. Fudin mentioned.


Meanwhile, “insurance companies are incorporating guidelines into what they’re willing to pay for under any circumstance, thus driving a lot of clinical decision making on what are supposed to be guidelines applying only to primary care doctors,” mentioned Edward Michna, MD, director of the Pain Trials Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, and a board member of the American Pain Society. All that is carried out “under the guise of patient safety, but it’s really about saving money.”

“Health plans are addressing a very serious crisis, the opioid epidemic,” mentioned Cathryn Donaldson, director of communications for America’s Health Insurance Plans. Payors, she added, “are focusing on fighting the epidemic, while ensuring that people have a proven pathway to manage their pain.”

“It has been my experience that … some commercial plans have already been imposing [dosage ceilings] when it’s not currently required,” mentioned James DeMicco, PharmD, of J&J State Street Pharmacy, in Hackensack, N.J. “Anything above 90 mg of MEDD becomes problematic.” Dr. DeMicco added that regardless of modifications in some plans permitting mushy edits and enabling pharmacist overrides on the level of sale, “it is still very challenging.”

Similarly, some insurance coverage firms won’t pay for prolonged launch, or “have created incredibly lengthy red tape” that should be navigated earlier than fee, in response to the CDC guideline’s fourth suggestion to keep away from extended-release opioids when beginning remedy, mentioned Sanford Silverman, MD, director-at-large of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. These strictures apply even when these opioids are prescribed by ache specialists, though the CDC guideline solely applies to major care physicians, he famous.

Worse, insurance coverage firms typically require prior authorization anew when a affected person already on opioids switches physicians, Dr. Silverman mentioned.

“Some insurance companies—WellCare in Florida is one—don’t even cover extended release, long acting in the formulary,” even supposing it typically works higher for sufferers, and it’s much less susceptible to diversion, Dr. Silverman mentioned. (WellCare didn’t return cellphone requires this story.)

Big Pharmacy Chains

Even when an insurance coverage firm covers a excessive dose, a pharmacy might refuse to dispense the dose or the drug. Pharmacies have grown cautious following cases when the authorities have legitimately clamped down on them.

For instance, in 2013, Walgreens paid $80 million in civil penalties, and was prohibited from meting out managed substances for 2 years. The big pharmacy chain had did not adjust to Drug Enforcement Administration laws requiring reporting of suspicious prescription drug orders that its Jupiter distribution middle obtained from six Florida Walgreens retail pharmacies. During that point (2009-2011), all six shops noticed skyrocketing will increase in orders for managed substances, the best of which was 21-fold.

Numerous fines have been levied elsewhere within the United States, comparable to an $eight million levy on CVS in Maryland earlier this yr for comparable violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

As a consequence, pharmacies are sometimes reluctant to fill opioid prescriptions. Patients continuously are pressured to drive to quite a few pharmacies to seek out one that can fill such a prescription, Dr. Silverman famous. This is named the “pharmacy crawl.”

In one occasion, Dr. Silverman needed to spend 20 minutes convincing a pharmacy employees member that it was authorized to offer an opioid-naive affected person a short-acting opioid. “This is only one of millions of stories,” he added.

Walgreens created a prolonged guidelines that employees members should use when filling opioid prescriptions, which incorporates 11 gadgets (e.g., “quantity is 120 units or less; or 60 units or less if paid by cash or cash discount card”) and greater than two pages of “procedures,” in small sort. (Walgreens’ media relations didn’t reply to a cellphone name and e-mail.)

Dr. Silverman known as the guidelines “ridiculous,” declaring that the pharmacist can test the state prescription drug monitoring program to see whether or not the affected person in query has obtained medication elsewhere.

Physicians within the Middle

“For physicians wishing to stay out of the firing line, the implicitly encouraged step is involuntary dose reduction, even if the patient is functionally stable on their current dose,” Dr. Kertesz mentioned. “That course of action has absolutely no trial data to support it,” he added.

But with the rising medical-legal liabilities, “more and more primary care practices are saying they won’t offer opioids for any reason,” Dr. Michna mentioned. The restrictions “have driven up the amount of time you need to spend, and with all these laws and regulations, there hasn’t been a concurrent increase in reimbursement.”

“I have cared for a few patients in the immediate aftermath of involuntary tapers introduced by others,” Dr. Kertesz mentioned. “We have a rising tide of concerning reports. I am aware of hospital legal teams that are concerned about the liability implications of such practices.”


All this however, the opioid crackdown represents a chance to coach ache physicians to method mitigating continual ache extra creatively, mentioned Melanie Rosenblatt, MD, director of ache administration at Broward Health North, in Pompano Beach, Fla.

For many sufferers, doses ample to numb the ache continuously numb the remainder of residing, Dr. Rosenblatt famous. But each physicians and sufferers continuously favor to do what they know, relatively than attempt one thing new, she mentioned.

“I say to all my patients, ‘I promise I can help you.’ It just may not be exactly what they want.”

Dr. Rosenblatt has spent years adjusting remedies to make them simpler, with fewer negative effects. For the affected person who faces tapering from a excessive dose of opioids, “maybe a spinal cord stimulator would work better,” she mentioned.

“Many patients might be better managed with newer alternatives, and maybe a fresh set of eyes,” she added. One affected person got here to her depressing with ache from metastatic prostate most cancers. “The pain meds he was taking were making him sleepy, and nauseous, and they weren’t working,” she mentioned. “I put an intrathecal pump into him that delivers opioid to the spine.” He got here into his follow-up appointment, “walking, saying I had given him his life back.”

Dr. Rosenblatt has developed a protocol for treating ache sufferers that de-emphasizes opioids, which is being distributed by her new firm, Melrose Pain Solutions.


As the opioid crackdown continues, two ironies stay. First, “this is the safest time in recent history to prescribe opioids,” mentioned Steven Pbadik, PhD, vice chairman of scientific affairs, training and coverage at Collegium Pharmaceuticals, in Canton, Mbad. “We have potentially safer drugs, abuse-deterrent drugs, buprenorphine, etc. We also have prescription drug monitoring in almost every state. And urine drug tests now come back in 24 hours, with accurate results. Give-back programs and counseling programs have shown efficacy in clinical trials in helping people to avoid abusing. And screening tools are available to ascertain someone’s risk of abusing.”

The second irony: Although opioid prescriptions have dropped tremendously, abuse and overdoses proceed to rise. The major medication of abuse are now not prescription opioids however heroin and illicit fentanyl, and their abuse is pushed partly by determined sufferers who’ve misplaced entry to opioids.

—David C. Holzman

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