Topic: Health Care

No Let Up On The Bad News About Overdose Deaths

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) just issued Data Brief Number 329, entitled “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2017.” Drug overdose deaths reached a new record high, exceeding 70,000 deaths in 2017, a 9.6 percent increase over 2016. That figure includes all drug overdoses, including those due to cocaine, methamphetamines, and benzodiazepines. The actual breakdown according to drug category will be reported in mid-December. However, estimates are opioid-related deaths will account for roughly 49,000 of the total overdose deaths. 

The big takeaways, quoting the report:

- The rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, which include drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol, increased from 0.3 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.0 in 2013, 1.8 in 2014, 3.1 in 2015, 6.2 in 2016, and 9.0 in 2017.The rate increased on average by 8% per year from 1999 through 2013 and by 71% per year from 2013 through 2017.

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving heroin increased from 0.7 in 1999 to 1.0 in 2008 to 4.9 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (4.9).

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, increased from 1.0 in 1999 to 4.4 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (4.4).

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving methadone increased from 0.3 in 1999 to 1.8 in 2006, then declined to 1.0 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (1.0).

Despite the fact that overdose deaths from prescription opioids—and even heroin—have stabilized, the overdose rate continues to climb due to the surge in fentanyl deaths. 

This has happened despite policies in place aimed at curtailing doctors from prescribing opioids to their patients in pain. Prescription surveillance boards and government-mandated prescribing limits have pushed prescribing down dramatically. High-dose prescriptions were down 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, another 16.1 percent in 2017, and another 12 percent this year.

Policies aimed at curbing prescribing are based on the false narrative that the overdose crisis is primarily the result of greedy drug makers manipulating gullible doctors into overtreating patients in pain and hooking them on drugs. But as I have written in the past, , the overdose crisis has always been primarily the result of non-medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market that results from prohibition. As the supply of prescription opioids diverted to the underground gets harder to come by, the efficient black market fills the void with other, more dangerous drugs. Lately, the synthetic opioid fentanyl has emerged as the number one killer.

In a New York Times report on the matter today, Josh Katz and Margot Sanger-Katz hint that policymakers are aiming at the wrong target by stating, “Recent federal public policy responses to the opioid epidemic have focused on opioid prescriptions. But several public health researchers say that the rise of fentanyls requires different tools. Opioid prescriptions have been falling, even as the death rates from overdoses are rising.”

Prescription opioids are not the cause of the overdose death crisis. Neither is fentanyl, despite the fact that it is now the primary driver of the rising death rate. The ultimate cause of the drug overdose crisis is prohibition. US policymakers should drop the false narrative and face reality, like Portuguese health authorities did 17 years ago.

Portugal, in 2001, recognized that prohibition was driving the death rate. At the time it had the highest overdose rate in Western Europe. It decriminalized all drugs and redirected efforts towards treatment and harm reduction. Portugal saw its population of heroin addicts drop 75 percent, and now has the lowest overdose rate in Europe. It has been so successful that Norway is about to take the same route.

At a minimum, policymakers in the U.S. should turn to harm reduction. They should expand syringe exchange and supervised injection facilities, lighten the regulatory burden on health care practitioners wishing to treat addicts with medication-assisted treatments such as methadoneand buprenorphine, and reschedule the overdose antidote naloxone to a truly over-the-counter drug.

Unless this happens, we should expect more discouraging news from the NCHS in the years ahead.

 

Better Late Than Never?

As I have written many times before, the opioid prescribing guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention have been criticized for not being evidence-based. This has even caused the Food and Drug Administration to begin the process of developing its own set of guidelines.

In publishing the guidelines, the CDC emphasized they were meant to be suggestive, not “prescriptive,” pointing out that health care practitioners know their patients’ situations better than any regulators and should therefore individualize their prescribing to meet their patients’ unique needs. 

That has not prevented the majority of states from implementing opioid prescribing guidelines that place limits on the dose, amount, and length of time that doctors can prescribe opioids—usually restricting the dose of opioids to a maximum of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalents) per day. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures at least 30 states have implemented such guidelines. These guidelines have caused many health care practitioners to return to the undertreatment of pain for which they were criticized in the 1980s and 90s. And it has driven many chronic pain patients to desperation as their doctors abruptly taper their pain medication or cut them off entirely.

The American Medical Association has gently criticized the misinterpretation and misapplication of the CDC guidelines in the past. Now two and a half years after the CDC published its guidelines, the AMA has taken a more adamant stand. This week, at the AMA’s interim meeting in Maryland, its House of Delegates resolved:

RESOLVED that our AMA affirms that some patients with acute or chronic pain can benefit from taking opioids at greater dosages than recommended by the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for chronic pain and that such care may be medically necessary and appropriate. 

RESOLVED that our AMA advocate against the misapplication of the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids by pharmacists, health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, legislatures, and governmental and private regulatory bodies in ways that prevent or limit access to opioid analgesia.

RESOLVED that our AMA advocate that no entity should use MME thresholds as anything more than guidance, and physicians should not be subject to professional discipline, loss of board certification, loss of clinical privileges, criminal prosecution, civil liability, or other penalties or practice limitations solely for prescribing opioids at a quantitative level above the MME thresholds found in the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids.

Sadly, the opiophobia-driven policy train left the station long ago. As an eternal optimist, my initial reaction is to think, “better late than never,” and to hope this new resolution will cause policymakers to reconsider their misguided policy. But the cynical voice inside me responds with a more negative cliché: “a day late and a dollar short.”

 

 

 

Has Opioid Hysteria Risen to the Point Where Innovation Is Forbidden?

On November 2 the Food and Drug Administration announced the approval of Dsuvia, a sublingual tablet containing the powerful fentanyl analog, sufentanil. Sufentanil has been used for years in the hospital setting, primarily in intravenous form for anesthesia. It is roughly 5 to 10 times more potent than fentanyl, and thus has a significant overdose potential. The FDA reached this decision following a 10-3 vote in favor of the drug’s approval by the Anesthetic and Analgesia Drug Products Advisory Committee (AADPAC), based on data from multicenter trials. It was not approved for outpatient use, but for use only in medically supervised settings, and may be of particular benefit to military health care practitioners.

FDA Commissioner Gottlieb’s announcement stated:

Dsuvia, which was previously approved by the European Medicines Agency in July under the brand name Dzuveo, has some unique features in that the drug is delivered in a stable form that makes it ideally suited for certain special circumstances where patients may not be able to swallow oral medication, and where access to intravenous pain relief is not possible. This includes potential uses on the battlefield. For this reason, the Department of Defense (DoD) worked closely with the sponsor on the development of this new medicine. This opioid formulation, along with Dsuvia’s unique delivery device, was a priority medical product for the Pentagon because it fills a specific and important, but limited, unmet medical need in treating our nation’s soldiers on the battlefield. The involvement and needs of the DoD in treating soldiers on the battlefield were discussed by the advisory committee.

The announcement was met with criticism from numerous quarters, including Anesthesiology Professor Raeford Brown of the University of Kentucky, who chairs the AADPAC, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), and the advocacy group Public Citizen. They questioned the need for the development of a new and potent opioid in the presence of the opioid overdose crisis, and raised concerns about the potential for the drug’s diversion to the black market for non-medical users. These objections were trumpeted by the media.

The concerns raised by critics are unfounded. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, most fentanyl and fentanyl analogs found on the streets are in an illicit powdered form, made in labs overseas and smuggled into the US via the mail, Fedex, and UPS, or using Mexican drug cartel infrastructure. While much of it is mixed in with heroin or cocaine, many dealers own pill presses and press the powder into counterfeit oxycodone or hydrocodone pills that are sold to unsuspecting nonmedical users. That’s how the artist known as Prince died. He liked to use Vicodin (hydrocodone) recreationally. Records show he never obtained any prescriptions from doctors. His dealer sold him what was believed to be Vicodin but was actually counterfeit and made from fentanyl, which caused his overdose death.

Recrudescent opiophobia now evokes positions held at the zenith of President Nixon’s war on drugs. The fact remains that opioids can be highly effective in treating pain, especially in the acute setting. Hysteria-driven policy should not stifle innovations in this or other forms of pain management.

Commissioner Gottlieb also stated in the FDA announcement:

We owe an answer to patients with medical pain, and the innovators who take risks to develop products to help address their needs. We owe it to Americans who want the FDA to do our part to help end one of the biggest addiction crises of modern times, while we carefully balance these grave risks against patient needs.

Commissioner Gottlieb made the right call here.

Poll: The ACA’s Pre-existing Condition Regulations Lose Support When the Public Learns the Cost

Days before the 2018 midterms, 68% of voters say that health care is very or extremely important to how they plan to vote in this year’s elections, according to a new Cato 2018 Health Care Survey of 2,498 Americans. These numbers are driven primarily by Democratic voters with 86% who say this issue is especially important to them—in fact, 56% say the issue is “extremely important” to them. Independent (33%) and Republican voters (21%) are far less likely to say this is an “extremely” crucial issue for their vote this Tuesday.

 FIND FULL POLL RESULTS HERE

These results are consistent with analysis of 2018 campaign ads, which finds Democrats have made healthcare the centerpiece of their case to voters. About half of Democratic ads have featured health care issues compared to less than a third of Republican ads. At the core of the debate is what to do with pre-existing condition regulations embedded in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that prevent health insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions. Much of the public debate centered on pre-existing condition protections assume that these regulations enjoy widespread public support. However, these protections lose public support when voters learn about their costs, finds the Cato 2018 Health Care Survey.

The survey first replicated the results from myriad other surveys finding a majority (65%) of Americans favor regulations that prohibit insurance companies from refusing to cover, or charging higher premiums to, people with pre-existing conditions, while 32% oppose. However, support plummets when Americans are faced with likely consequences of these regulations. 

Support drops 20 points to 44% in favor and 51% opposed if pre-existing condition protections limited people’s access to medical tests and treatments. Similarly, 44% would favor and 50% would oppose if these regulations harmed the delivery of high-quality health care. Support drops 18 points to 47% in favor and 48% opposed if these regulations limited people’s access to top-rated medical facilities and treatment centers. Some may dismiss these potential costs as improbable; however, research finds these are likely consequences from the incentives these regulations create for the health care industry. It is for this reason that we investigate how the public evaluates these costs.

Compared to quality reductions, Americans are more prepared to pay higher taxes or premiums in exchange for keeping regulations that prevent insurers from denying coverage or charger higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions. About half (51%) would favor and 44% oppose if these regulations raised taxes and 49% would favor and 47% would oppose if they drove up premiums. 

These results follow a familiar pattern identified in the Cato 2017 Health Care Survey that asked about each of these pre-existing condition protections separately. However, in this year’s survey we improve the desirability of these regulations by offering them as a bundle. Even still, when faced with the realistic costs of these mandates, public support plummets. 

Taking a look among partisans, we find that without any mention of costs, 83% of Democrats, 55% of independents, and 52% of Republicans initially support pre-existing condition protections. However, independents and Republicans turn against these regulations if they increase the cost of health insurance (66%, 55%), reduce access to medical tests and treatments (59%, 58%), harm the quality of health care people receive (57%, 55%), reduce access to top-rated medical facilities and treatment centers (57%, 55%), or increase taxes (57%, 57%). Democrats are less swayed by these trade-offs; however, they are least willing to sacrifice the quality of health care in exchange for keeping the pre-existing condition regulations (42%). Instead, majorities of Democrats are willing to have less access to medical tests (57%), or top-rated medical facilities (61%), or pay higher premiums (67%) or taxes (72%). Some differences in how partisans answer these questions may depend, perhaps, on how believable these costs seem to respondents rather than how acceptable they are. For instance, since Democrats are most enthusiastic about these regulations, they may be less likely to believe that they could harm the quality of care.

Higher-income Americans are more willing than low-income Americans to make trade-offs, such as shouldering higher premiums or having less access to top-rated medical facilities, to keep the pre-existing condition regulations. For instance, 61% of Americans earning more than $80,000 a year say they’d pay higher premiums to keep these regulations. In contrast, about a third (38%) of Americans earning less than $40,000 a year agree; instead, 56% oppose paying higher premiums for this reason. Nearly 6 in 10 (57%) of people earning more than $80,000 a year say they’d accept having less access to top-rated medical facilities compared to 35% of Americans earning less than $20,000 a year.

Short Term Plans

The survey also asked Americans about new federal rules that allow consumers to purchase alternative health insurance plans that don’t comply with ACA-mandates. The survey finds that majorities support new federal rules that allow consumers to purchase alternative plans, like short-term plans, even when confronted with likely trade-offs.

First, the survey presented respondents with only the anticipated benefits of the new federal rules. Doing so finds that 77% of Americans support new federal rules that allow consumers to purchase health insurance plans that cost 50% less and offer greater choices of hospitals and doctors than current plans and would cover 2 million more uninsured people. 

Support drops to 64% in favor and 31% opposed if these rules meant that some people would purchase insurance policies that cover fewer services than current plans. For instance, these new plans would not be required to cover services like mental health and prescription drugs. 

One reason why such plans have lower premiums is they do not have to comply with ACA pre-existing condition regulations and thus may exclude people, or offer limited services to people, with expensive medical conditions. These lower premiums could draw people who use fewer medical services out of the ACA-compliant plans and thus increase premiums for those who remain in those plans and are not eligible for subsidies. Nevertheless, the survey finds that 59% would continue to favor while 35% would oppose these new rules if they caused premiums to rise for some people who purchase insurance plans in the individual market.

These rule changes are popular among partisans with 77% of Democrats and 86% of Republicans in support. Majorities of Democrats and Republicans continue to favor allowing people to purchase non-ACA compliant plans even if doing so means people would not have as many services covered (58% and 71%) or if doing so increased premiums for unsubsidized people in the individual market (63% and 65%).

The Path Forward

The survey also asked Americans how they felt policymakers should approach health care reform going forward. A majority (55%) of Americans believe that the “better way” to sustainably provide high-quality affordable health care is through expanding free-market competition among insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals. Thirty-nine percent (39%) think that more government regulation of insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals is more likely to provide affordable coverage. These numbers are virtually unchanged from last year’s health care survey.

Independents (54%) and Republicans (79%) agree that more free-market competition rather than more government management of health care is more likely to lead to affordable coverage. However, a majority (60%) of Democrats think more government management is the key. Despite these partisan differences, majorities or slim majorities of whites (58%), African Americans (53%) and Hispanics (51%) believe more free market competition can better provide affordable health care than more government control.

Implications

These results do not support the widespread misperception among the political punditry that pre-existing condition regulations are necessarily and universally supported by voters across the political spectrum. Voters like benefits but not costs. And some costs are more acceptable to voters than others. Democratic accountability demands that we understand if voters are willing to bear the necessary trade-offs and costs in exchange for establishing a new policy, regulatory protection, or social program. But first, pollsters have to ask.

 
 
The Cato Institute 2018 Health Care Survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online October 26-30, 2018 from a representative national sample of 2,498 Americans 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.66 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

 

As If We Needed It, More Evidence Emerges Showing That The Government Has Changed The Opioid Crisis Into a Fentanyl Crisis

Speaking last week at a National Opioid Summit in Washington, DC, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported opioid prescriptions fell another 12 percent during the first eight months of 2018, saying ‘We now have the lowest opioid prescription rates in 18 years.” Some of this was no doubt the result of the chilling effect that prescription surveillance boards have had on the prescribing patterns of physicians. For example, Sessions announced the Trump administration has charged 226 doctors and 221 medical personnel with “opioid-related crimes,” and this has not gone unnoticed by health care practitioners.

Sessions also pledged to meet the goal of a 44 percent overall reduction in the production of opioids permitted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, which sets quotas on the production of opioids by US manufacturers, began the process with a 25 percent reduction in 2016 and another 20 percent reduction in 2017. This has led to shortages of injectable opioids in many hospitals, affecting the delivery and quality of care.

Meanwhile, the DEA reported in a Joint Intelligence Report that overdoses in Pennsylvania continued to rise, with 5,456 fatal overdoses in 2017, a 65 percent increase over 2015. Only 20 percent of those overdoses involved prescription opioids, with most deaths involving multiple drugs in combination—usually fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, as well as counterfeit prescription opioids (usually made of illicit fentanyl and heroin pressed into pills). The report stated heroin and fentanyl were found in 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s counties.

Prescription opioids were also responsible for just 20 percent of the fatal overdoses in Massachusetts in 2015, where researchers at Boston University reported last week in the American Journal of Public Health that Opioid Use Disorder among people over age 11 grew to 4.6 percent of the population that year. 

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports a modest tapering in the fatal overdose rate, from 2,154 in 2016 to 2,069 in 2017, and estimates up to 1,053 have occurred in the first 6 months of 2018. During the first quarter of 2018, 90 percent of those deaths involved fentanyl, 43 percent involved cocaine, 34 percent involved heroin, and 20 percent involved prescription opioids. Fentanyl is responsible for sustaining the death rate in Massachusetts at near-record levels.

What jumps out of these numbers is the fact that efforts to get doctors to curtail their treatment of pain have not meaningfully reduced the overdose rate. They have just caused non-medical users of opioids to migrate over to more dangerous heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl and heroin—not prescription opioids—are now the principal drugs behind the gruesome mortality statistics. 

Addressing the overdose crisis by focusing on doctors treating patients aims at the wrong target. And patients are suffering—often desperately— in the process. The cause has been drug prohibition from the get-go. If policymakers can’t muster the courage to admit and address that fact, then they should at least put the lion’s share of reform efforts into mitigating the harmful unintended consequences of prohibition. I wrote about this here.

Conservatives for Higher Taxes

Center for a Free Economy president Ryan Ellis writes in the Washington Examiner that President Trump “has caved to the socialists” by proposing to set the prices that Medicare pays for certain drugs at a percentage of the prices that foreign governments set for those drugs:

Unfortunately, rather than fighting the socialists, the president has decided to become one with them — at least when it comes to prescription drugs. After spending most of this year rightly condemning governments in Europe and elsewhere for ripping off Americans by imposing below-market price controls on drugs, Trump and [Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex] Azar basically surrendered to the price controls and announced we would be adopting them ourselves…

By letting the foreign price controls serve as a reference price control here, Trump has put us down the same path of scarcity and rationing all too often seen in the rest of the developed world.

The purpose of Trump’s proposal is indeed to reduce the prices Medicare pays for these drugs. Medicare currently pays much more for these drugs than government-run health systems in other nations.

Beyond that, Ellis’s oped crystallizes everything conservatives get wrong about drug pricing and Medicare purchasing in general. A few clarifications:

  1. No one knows what the “right” price is for any drug. We need market prices because they create incentives that naturally and always push prices in the right direction. 
  2. Medicare’s administered (read: ouiji-board) prices are indeed price controls, but not in the usual meaning of the term. They do not restrain prices anywhere but within the Medicare program.
  3. Medicare’s administered/controlled prices are not market prices, any more than other governments’ administered/controlled prices are market prices. 
  4. The Trump proposal would merely change the way Medicare comes up with the prices it pays for drugs. Those prices would not be any more “price-controlled” after the Trump proposal than they were before. They would just be lower–if the proposal achieves its stated goal, that is, which may or may not happen (more below).
  5. Conservatives who argue Medicare should not pay less than it currently does for drugs need to address the paradox inherent in their argument that, in order to restrain government and have a free economy, government must spend more. In order to fight socialism, taxes must be higher.
  6. One cannot import a price control. That’s not how they work. A government can either impose price controls on its own populace, or not. It cannot import the coercion another government exerts on its own citizens.

Ellis is correct when he writes, “Markets do a much better job reducing drug prices than government price controls do, and they do it while making prescription medicines widely available to patients, as opposed to rationed due to scarcity.” But the end result of these misunderstandings and misconceptions is that conservatives end up crowding out markets and/by opposing efforts to reduce government spending. This is why the Left believes, with justification, that when it comes to health care conservatives are just a bunch of cronyists.

Another irony: the more likely impact of Trump’s reference-pricing scheme is that prices in other nations would rise, which is exactly what Ellis says he wants.

Overcharged by Cato adjunct scholars Charlie Silver and David Hyman is the antidote to this strand of un-conservative conservative thinking. 

C-SPAN: Health Care and Campaign 2018

This weekend, I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal alongside Families USA’s Frederick Isasi to discuss “the role of health care  in the 2018 mid-term elections.” Specific topics were covered include Cato’s latest health care book, Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much For Health Care; the recent vote by Senate Democrats that would have thrown patients with preexisting conditions out of their health plans and left them with no coverage; how ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions are unpopular and reduce quality; how markets make access more secure for the sick than employer-sponsored plans; the benefits and costs of short-term plans; the Veterans Health Administration; the single-payer two-step; and how ObamaCare supporters want to take away your freedom to choose your health benefits. 
 

Prepare yourself for the greatest 55 minutes and 30 seconds of your life.

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