Is FDA Commissioner Realizing That America’s War on Opioids Has Become a War on Patients?

In a May 14 blog post, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb expressed concern about the effect the nation’s restrictive policy towards the manufacture and prescription of opioids is having on patients with chronic pain conditions. This is one of the first signs that someone in the administration has taken note of the unintended consequences of this misguided policy—a policy that is based upon the false narrative that the overdose crisis is primarily the result of doctors prescribing opioids to patients in pain.

In response to a wide range of public input solicited by the FDA beginning in September 2017, Commissioner Gottlieb stated:

We’ve heard the concerns expressed by these individuals about having continued access to necessary pain medication, the fear of being stigmatized as an addict, challenges in finding health care professionals willing to work with or even prescribe opioids, and sadly, for some patients, increased thoughts of or actual suicide because crushing pain was resulting in a loss of quality of life.

Pointing out that, “In some medical circumstances, opioids are the only drugs that work for some patients,” Dr. Gottlieb announced that a public meeting will be held on July 9 on “Patient-Focused Drug Development for Chronic Pain,” and invited pain patients to offer their perspectives.

Hinting at his dissatisfaction with the 2016 one-size-fits-all opioid prescription guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have greatly influenced state and federal opioid policymakers, he signaled that the FDA is considering proposing its own set of guidelines. Unlike the CDC guidelines, which are not evidence-based and were never intended to be prescriptive, Gottlieb stated:

In short, having sound, evidence-based information to inform prescribing can help ensure that patients aren’t over prescribed these drugs; while at the same time also making sure that patients with appropriate needs for short and, in some cases, longer-term use of these medicines are not denied access to necessary treatments. We will take the first steps toward developing this framework in the coming months, with the goal of providing standards that could inform the development of evidence based guidelines.

Opioid prescriptions peaked in 2010, and high-dose opioid prescriptions are down more than 41 percent since then. Yet the overdose rate continues to climb year after year, with fentanyl and heroin being the major culprits while overdoses from prescription type opioids have stabilized and have even slightly receded. The overdose problem was never really primarily caused by doctors treating patients in pain. It has always been principally due to nonmedical users accessing opioids in the illegal market. And as prescription opioids have become less accessible to them, they are migrating over to more dangerous drugs. The present policy towards the problem is making patients suffer while, at the same time, driving up the death rate. 

This is the first indication that a significant member of the Administration might be coming to that realization.