Tag: overdoses

FDA Commissioner Gottlieb’s Sunday “Tweetorial” Is Both Encouraging and Frustrating

A fair reading of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s “Sunday Tweetorial” on the opioid overdose crisis leaves one simultaneously encouraged and frustrated. 

First the encouraging news. The Commissioner admits that the so-called epidemic of opioid overdoses has “evolved” from one “mostly involving [diverted] prescription drugs to one that’s increasingly fueled by illicit substances being purchased online or off the street.” Most encouraging was this passage:

Even as lawful prescribing of opioids is declining, we’re seeing large increases in deaths from accidental drug overdoses as people turn to dangerous street drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Illegal online pharmacies, drug dealers and other bad actors are increasingly using the Internet to further their illicit distribution of opioids, where their risk of detection and the likelihood of repercussions are seen by criminals as significantly reduced.

As I have written here and here, the overdose crisis has always been primarily caused by non-medical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition. As government interventions have made it more expensive and difficult to obtain diverted prescription opioids for non-medical use, the black market responds efficiently by filling the void with heroin, illicit fentanyl (there is a difference) and fentanyl analogs. So policies aimed at curtailing doctors’ prescriptions of opioids to patients only serve to drive up deaths from these more dangerous substitutes, while causing patients to suffer needlessly, sometimes desperately, in pain. Gottlieb validates my argument in his “tweetorial,” providing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Now for the frustrating news. Gottlieb next reminds us, “No controlled substances, including opioids, can be lawfully sold or offered to be sold online. There is no gray area here.” He provides evidence of rampant illegal internet marketing of prescription opioids, with 95 percent of internet pharmacy websites selling opioids without a prescription, often conducting transactions with cryptocurrencies, and shipping these orders “virtually anywhere in the US.” This is also the way illicit fentanyl is flooding the market.

While Politicians Cut Opioid Prescriptions, Fentanyl—With Help From the “Dark Web” and the USPS— Becomes the Number One Killer

A May 22 story in Bloomberg News describes with painstaking detail the underground pipeline through which the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl floods the US market. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, while the Mexican cartel plays a role by using its well-established heroin and methamphetamine distribution networks, most of the fentanyl comes in to the US from China. 

The raw materials to make the synthetic opioids are cheap and they can be manufactured rather quickly in small laboratories. The laboratories are constantly creating new variations so as to skirt restrictions the Chinese government places on existing fentanyl analogs. Online distributors throughout China sell these products, making their transactions over the “dark web,” often paid with cryptocurrency, and frequently ship the products to the US via the US Postal Service or United Parcel Service. 

Many dealers purchase and use pill presses to make counterfeit OxyContin or Vicodin pills and trick non-medical users into thinking they are buying the real thing. That’s how Prince died. He preferred to abuse Vicodin (hydrocodone). Records show he never got prescriptions from doctors. He died from ingesting counterfeit Vicodin pills he obtained on the black market that turned out to be fentanyl.

The DEA reports this is the way most fentanyl makes its way to the street. As we doctors know, most pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl made for medical use does not get diverted on to the streets. In fact, the forms usually prescribed to outpatients—skin patches, lozenges, buccal films—are not very suitable for non-medical use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fentanyl was responsible for 26,000 overdose deaths in 2017. But already in 2016 fentanyl accounted for more than 20,000 of the roughly 64,000 total overdose deaths (which include cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines). Heroin came in second with more than 15,000. In fact, for a few years now, fentanyl and heroin have accounted for the majority of overdose deaths. And a great majority of those deaths had multiple other drugs on board. In New York City in 2016, three-quarters of overdose deaths were from fentanyl and heroin, and 97 percent of overdoses had multiple other drugs on board—46 percent of the time it was cocaine.

Fentanyl overdoses in the US have been rising at a rate of 88 percent per year since 2013. Heroin overdoses have been increasing at a rate of 19 percent per year since 2014 after climbing 33 percent per year from 2010-2014. Meanwhile, overdose deaths from prescription-type opioids have been increasing at a stable rate of 3 percent per year since 2009.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports non-medical use of prescription opioids peaked in 2012, and total prescription opioid use in 2014 was lower than in 2012. And the survey repeatedly reports less than 25 percent of non-medical users see a doctor in order to get a prescription. Three-quarters obtain their drugs through a friend or family member or a drug dealer.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on, policymakers in Washington and in state capitals seem intent on getting the opioid prescription rate down further. State-based prescription drug monitoring programs have succeeded in reducing the prescription of high-dose opioids by over 41 percent since 2010, the peak year of opioid prescribing. And opioid production quotas, set by the DEA, were reduced 25 percent last year and another 20 percent this year, generating acute shortages of injectables in hospitals across the nation that is harming patients.

With all the evidence that the majority of non-medical users are not patients—with all the evidence that prescription rates have come down while overdose rates keep going up—with all the evidence of fentanyl and heroin flooding the black market and causing those deaths, it is time for policymakers to disabuse themselves of the false narrative to which they’ve been stubbornly clinging. This narrative blames the overdose problem on doctors prescribing pain relievers to their patients. The overdose problem has always been primarily caused by non-medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market created by drug prohibition. And our current restrictive policy is only driving up the death rate by pushing these users to more dangerous drugs while making patients suffer in the process.

What’s the definition of insanity?

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.

Multiple Distinguished Health Care Practitioners Speak Out Against Misguided Opioid Policy

On March 30, Sally Satel, a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse at Yale University School of Medicine, co-authored an article with addiction medicine specialist Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Medicine condemning the plans of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to place limits on the amount of opioids Medicare patients can receive. The agency will decide in April if it will limit the number of opioids it will cover to 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day. Any opioids beyond that amount will not be paid for by Medicare. One year earlier, Dr. Kertesz made similar condemnations in a column for The Hill. While 90 MME is considered a high dose, they point out that many patients with chronic severe pain have required such doses or higher for prolonged periods of time to control their pain. Promoting the rapid reduction of opioid doses in such people will return many to a life of anguish and desperation.

CMS’s plan to limit opioid prescriptions mimics similar limitations put into effect in more than half of the states and is not evidence-based. These restrictions are rooted in the false narrative that the opioid overdose problem is mostly the result of doctors over-prescribing opioids to patients in pain, even though it is primarily the result of non-medical opioid users accessing drugs in the illicit market. Policymakers are implementing these restrictions based upon a flawed interpretation of opioid prescribing guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016.

Drs. Satel and Kertesz point out that research has yet to show a distinct correlation between the overdose rate and the dosages on which patients are maintained, and that the data show a majority of overdoses involve multiple drugs. (2016 data from New York City show 97 percent involved multiple drugs, and 46 percent of the time one of them was cocaine.)

Not only are the Medicare opioid reduction proposals without scientific foundation, but they run counter to the recommendations of CMS in its 2016 guidelines. As Dr. Kertesz stated in 2017:

“In its 7th recommendation, the CDC urged that care of patients already receiving opioids be based not on the number of milligrams, but on the balance of risks and benefits for that patient. That two major agencies have chosen to defy the CDC ignores lessons we should have learned from prior episodes in American medicine, where the appeal of management by easy numbers overwhelmed patient-centered considerations.”

In an effort to dissuade the agency, Dr. Kertesz sent a letter to CMS in early March signed by 220 health professionals, including eight who had official roles in formulating the 2016 CDC guidelines. The letter called attention to the flaws in the proposal and to its great potential to cause unintentional harm. CMS will render its verdict as early as today.

Until policymakers cast off their misguided notions about the forces behind the overdose crisis, patients will suffer needlessly and overdose rates will continue to climb. 

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Politicians Cannot Stop Punishing Patients for the Unintended Consequences of Drug Prohibition

It seems no amount of evidence can make political leaders disabuse themselves of the misguided notion that the nation’s opioid overdose crisis is caused by doctors getting patients hooked on prescription opioids. A group of eight senators unveiled the CARA(Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act) 2.0 Act on February 27, targeting the opioid crisis. It would impose a 3-day limit on all opioid prescribing for patients in acute and outpatient postoperative pain.

But the movement to restrict prescriptions is not evidence-based, as prominent experts have pointed out. The politicians base their proposal on the 2016 opioid guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines stated:

When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed.

The guidelines pointed out that the above recommendations were based on “Type 4” evidence:

Type 4 evidence indicates that one has very little confidence in the effect estimate, and the true effect is likely to be substantially different from the estimate of the effect.

It further described Type 4 evidence as being based upon “clinical experience and observations, observational studies with important limitations, or randomized clinical trials with several major limitations.”

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Arizona Governor, Legislature, Rush Through Flawed “Emergency” Opioid Legislation

Late on the night of January 25, the Arizona legislature unanimously approved “The Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act,” introduced at the urging of Governor Doug Ducey (R) just 3 days earlier. The Governor and legislature were in such a hurry that they took no time to request testimony from representatives of the medical profession or from any other experts that might have differing views about the best ways to approach the overdose crisis. The overdose crisis is such an “emergency” that there was no time for that. Yet, most of the Act’s provisions are not scheduled to take effect until 2019.

Among the harmful features of the Act are strict restrictions on the amount and dose of opioids doctors can prescribe to new and postoperative patients. Prescriptions may be for only 5 days, and the dosages are capped. Doctors wishing to exceed these limits must first consult a board-certified pain management specialist which, of course, might take several days. This policy is not evidence-based. It will cause injured patients and those recovering from surgery to suffer needless and agonizing pain. In December, the Arizona Medical Association and the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association wrote the state Department of Health Services warning of harmful “unintended consequences” that may ensue from one-size-fits-all 5-day limits on prescriptions and dosages for patients in acute pain.

This policy is not just inhumane, it’s dangerous. Desperate patients might seek to get better relief for their undertreated pain by supplementing their prescriptions with alcohol and/or other drugs, or by obtaining drugs through the illegal market, increasing the risk of overdose or death.

Another provision requires all providers to use a state-approved E-prescription system to prescribe opioids, placing a burden on health care providers in remote and rural areas of the state, where broadband internet access is inadequate and where some practitioners lack technological sophistication in their practices.

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Washington Post Columnist Needs to Get Her Opioid Facts Right

In a December 28, 2017 column for the Washington Post entitled, “Opioid Abuse in the US Is So Bad It’s Lowering Life Expectancy. Why Hasn’t the Epidemic Hit Other Countries?,” Amanda Erickson succumbs to the false narrative that misdiagnoses the opioid overdose crisis as being primarily a manifestation of doctors over-prescribing opioids, goaded on by greedy, unethical pharmaceutical companies. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed less than 25% of people using opioids for non-medical reasons get them through a prescription. A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found just 13% of overdose victims had chronic pain conditions. Multiple Cochrane analyses show a true addiction (not just dependency) rate of roughly 1% in chronic pain patients on long-term opioids. Yet despite the 41% reduction in the prescription of high-dose opioids since 2010, the overdose rate continues to climb, and for the past few years heroin and fentanyl have been the major causes of death, as death from prescription opioids has stabilized or receded.

In actual fact, the rise in drug abuse and overdose is multifactorial, with socioeconomic and sociocultural components. This helps explain the Washington University study reporting 33% of heroin addicts entering rehab in 2015 started with heroin, as opposed to 8.7% in 2005.

It also helps explain why, contrary to Ms. Erickson’s reporting, opioid overdoses have reached crisis levels in Europe, despite a European medical culture that historically has been stingy with pain medicines, and has encouraged stoicism from patients. And the overdose crisis in Canada, ranked second in the world for per capita opioid use, has alarmed public health authorities there. But at least the Europeans and Canadians have the good sense to emphasize harm reduction measures to address the crisis, such as safe injection rooms and medication-assisted treatment, rather than focusing on inhibiting doctors from helping their patients in pain.

 

 

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