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Monday, May 3, 2021

PROP’s Disproportionate Influence on U.S. Opioid Policy: The Harms of Intended Consequences

by Chad Kollas, MD (@ChadDKollas)


A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has captured the attention of the palliative care and chronic pain communities (1). Published on February 12, 2021, in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), it observed that the “age-adjusted overdose death rates involving synthetic opioids, psychostimulants, cocaine, heroin, and prescription opioids during 2013–2019” have increased a whopping 1,040% (1). Several critics have attributed this increase in overdose mortality to failed federal opioid policy, particularly the 2016 CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain and their misapplication (2-4). This criticism has generated recent flurry of activity on social media by the anti-opioid advocacy group (5), Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). This commentary will explore how PROP’s flawed policy approach over the last decade has reduced legitimate access to opioid medications and contributed to harms from increases in overdose deaths in the United States (US).

PROP Appears on the Opioid Policy Scene

In 2011, a group of internists, including Michael Van Korff, Andrew Kolodny and Roger Chou, co-authored an article that modern palliative care physicians would recognize as a “warning shot (6)” in the world of opioid policy (7). They announced the creation of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), a “nonprofit organization with no pharmaceutical industry funding or ties,” that would “identify practical approaches to more cautious opioid prescribing in community practice (7).” They declared that “Guidelines for long-term opioid therapy should not be developed by the field of pain medicine alone. Rather, experts from general medicine, addiction medicine, and pain medicine should jointly reconsider how to increase the margin of safety (7).”

PROP Petition to the FDA on Opioid Labeling

The Petition is Filed
In its first effort to influence national opioid policy, in July 2012, PROP submitted a Petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling for a change in labeling of opioid analgesics (8). Signatories to the Petition included PROP President, Andrew Kolodny, PROP Vice-president, Michael Van Korff, and PROP Board Members, Jane Ballantyne, Roger Chou, Stephen Gelfand, and Gary Franklin, among other medical specialists, including American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) President, Stu Gitlow (8). In its petition, PROP requested that the FDA to make three main changes to the labeling process for opioid analgesics:

    1) Strike the term “moderate” from the indication for non-cancer pain (the only clinical indication for using an opioid analgesic would be for severe cancer pain).
    2) Add a maximum daily dose of opioid analgesia, equivalent to 100 milligrams of oral morphine, for treatment of all non-cancer pain.
    3) Add a maximum duration of 90-days for continuous (daily) opioid analgesia use for non-cancer pain, after which opioid analgesia would be discontinued (8).

The FDA acknowledged receipt of the PROP Petition on July 26, 2012 (9), and it simultaneously received a letter of support for its petition on the same date, led by Congress member, Representative Mary Bono Mack from California (10).

The Backlash to the PROP Petition Begins
This unity within the supporters of the petitioning group was short-lived. A representative from within the palliative care community alerted PROP FDA Petition signatory and American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) President, Stu Gitlow, about substantial concerns from the pain management and palliative medicine communities about the potential reduced access to opioid therapy for many patients. In response to concerns that the PROP Petition might have a chilling effect on medically-legitimate opioid prescribing, ASAM released a statement by Gitlow clarifying its position that “the relabeling proposals [were] not intended, in any way, to limit a chronic pain patient’s access to clinically appropriate opioid pain therapy or to impinge upon a pain specialist’s ability to make individual decisions regarding the most effective therapy for their legitimate pain patient (11).”

Several prominent pain management experts echoed important concerns about over-restricting patients’ medically legitimate access to opioid analgesics. Bob Twillman, a pain psychologist and Director of Policy and Advocacy for the American Academy of Pain Management (AAPM), pointed out that “the 90-day limit on use of opioid for [non-cancer pain was] arbitrarily chosen (12).” Because PROP’s Petition had criticized the use of long-term opioid therapy by citing a lack of evidence for opioids’ long-term effectiveness, Twillman also pointed out that “when considering opioid analgesics, FDA has used the standard of a 12-week trial of the medication[;] it has not required longer studies (12).” Similarly, co-chair the New York State Palliative Care Education and Training Council and palliative medicine physician, Russell Portenoy, wrote that in light of “the stunning disconnect between the label changes demanded in the petition and the ‘scientific basis’ presented to justify them, I am concerned that all of the signatories possess an incomplete understanding of opioid pharmacology and pain medicine, and as a result, may pursue regulatory changes that are not in the best interest of public health (13).”

Other PROP critics included several medical professional organizations, like the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), who challenged the clarity of a definition of cancer pain, asking rhetorically, “Who will decide whether the persistent pain, for example, of nerve damage incurred during an otherwise curative course of chemo- and radiation therapy is or is not cancer-related? (14).” Likewise, the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) stated “we have serious concerns about the petition and believe the rationale for the requested changes is seriously flawed, potentially harmful to patients with debilitating pain conditions for whom opioid therapy is indicated, and without substantive scientific foundation (15).”

The American Pain Society (APS) cited similar concerns about the Petition’s “insufficient scientific evidence base to support [its] recommendations. Further, we are concerned that implementation of these labeling changes which would dictate indications, dosing and duration of opioid treatment will not accomplish the intended goals, but instead have unintended negative consequences for patients including but not limited to untreated pain and loss of access to individualized care (16).”

FDA Response to the PROP Petition

On September 10, 2013, the FDA provided its response to the PROP Petition to change opioid labeling, which was granted in part and denied in part (17, 18). The FDA agreed with PROP that “more data are needed about the safety of long-term use of opioids,” and, to this end, they required “all new drug application (NDA) sponsors of ER/LA opioids to conduct postapproval studies and clinical trials… to assess certain known serious risks of ER/LA opioid use: misuse, abuse, hyperalgesia, addiction overdose and death (17).” Additionally, based on stakeholder input, the FDA determined that “safety labeling changes to the labeling of ER/LA opioid analgesics [were] needed to more effectively communicate to prescribers the serious risks associated with [those] drugs, and to more clearly describe the population in whom these drugs should be used be used in light of these serious risks – thus encouraging better prescribing, monitoring and patient counseling practices involving these drugs (17).” This included a new box warning to disclose risks from ER/LA opioid analgesics and the addition of the phrase, “indicated for the management of moderate to severe pain when a continuous, around-the-clock opioid analgesic is needed for an extended period of time (17).”

Despite calling for these changes, the FDA disagreed with the most important requests from the PROP Petition. It rejected PROP’s separation of non-cancer pain from cancer pain, noting “a patient without cancer, like a patient with cancer, may suffer from chronic pain, and PROP has not provided scientific support for why labeling should recommend different treatment for such patients (17).” The FDA also rejected PROP’s call for a 100 mg/day maximum morphine equivalent (MME) daily dose limitation, noting “the scientific literature does not support establishing a maximum recommended dose of 100 mg MED (17).” Furthermore, the FDA noted that creating a maximum dose of 100 mg MED “could imply a superior opioid safety profile under that set threshold, when there is no data to support that conclusion (17).” Finally, the FDA determined that PROP’s request to limit the maximum duration of treatment with opioid analgesia to 90 days was “not supportable” based on the evidence presented in the Petition (17).

PROP’s Influences the CDC Guidelines

A New Federal Regulatory Target

Although the FDA had rejected the most important changes which PROP had requested, based on a lack of scientific evidence, PROP publicly framed its FDA Opioid Labeling Petition as successful, then repeated its calls for a 100 mg/day MME (19). PROP had also explored other avenues to influence opioid policy and reduce opioid prescribing, reaching out for example to the Federation of State Medical Board (FSMB) to encourage it to make changes in its Revised Model Policy on the Appropriate Use of Opioid Analgesics in the Treatment of Pain (20). Ultimately, PROP identified a more accommodating regulatory agency than the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which revealed via engagement webinars on September 16 and 17, 2015, that it had been drafting its own Opioid Prescribing Guidelines (21).

Another PROP Backlash

In the days following these engagement webinars, critics expressed concerns about a lack of transparency in the drafting of the Opioid Prescribing Guidelines, because CDC had failed “to disclose what outside advisors it consulted with during the drafting of its controversial opioid prescribing guidelines for physicians (22).” Additional concerns involved an unusually short, 48-hour period for stakeholders to submit comments about the CDC Pain Guidelines upon their originally planned release in September 2015 (23). Moreover, revelations that at least five PROP Board Members - including PROP President Jane Ballantyne, PROP Vice-President Gary Franklin, PROP Founder Andrew Kolodny, PROP Board Member David Tauben and PROP Board Member David Juurlink – had served on the panels that helped develop the CDC Guidelines, stirred deeper concerns (23, 24). Jane Ballantyne MD, who had succeeded Andrew Kolodny as PROP President, served as the sole clinician from the pain management community to be included in the CDC Core Expert Group (25).

Medical professional organizations joined in criticism of the CDC for a lack of transparency in its policy review process and the scarcity of pain management experts represented in the Core Expert Group (26). The American Medical Association (AMA) wrote that the “review process used to date by CDC, especially the public engagement webinars, [had] generated concern about lack of transparency (26),” and that the “process may have been better served by constructing a more balanced panel that included clinicians from various medical specialty and practice settings (26).” The Patient Quality of Life Coalition (PQLC), an advocacy group that included the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM), AAPM, the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), and the Hospice & Palliative Nurses association (HPNA), among others, wrote that “the Guideline in its current form is focused on curbing inappropriate [opioid] use, but seems devoid of empathy for patients who need legally‐prescribed opioid medications for relief from serious and long‐lasting pain that compromises their quality of life and independence (27).”

Following this outcry for transparency and expanded clinical representation regarding content, the CDC announced a second, 30-day open-comment period on its proposed 2016 Pain Guidelines, effective December 14, 2015 (28, 29). This delayed the roll out of the CDC Pain Guidelines past its originally anticipated implementation in January 2016, and prompted PROP founder, Andrew Kolodny to complain, “Opening a docket will tack months on to the process [and also] increases the likelihood that the guideline may never be released. This is an enormous win for the opioid lobby (30)." Interestingly, Kolodny co-authored a subsequent article examining the role of pharma funding and support of the CDC Pain Guidelines, and found that “of the 158 organizations that commented on the CDC’s draft guidelines, approximately 80% supported them either with or without recommendations, including many that received funding from opioid manufacturers (31).”

The CDC Guidelines are Published, Despite Ongoing Concerns

Notwithstanding PROP-founder Kolodny’s fears that the guidelines “may never be released (30),” the CDC Pain Guidelines were published via MMWR on March 18, 2016 (4). While most pain experts generally felt that the Pain Guidelines would be useful for those prescribing opioids in primary care settings, many expressed concerns that the Guidelines could be misapplied and affect a much broader group of patients than intended. For example, AMA board chair-elect, Patrice Harris, said that while the AMA shared the goal of reducing harm from opioid abuse, it remained concerned “about the evidence base informing some of the recommendations, conflicts with existing state laws and product labeling, and possible unintended consequences” including insurance coverage limitations for non-pharmacotherapeutic options for chronic pain (30). Similarly, Bob Twillman, executive director of the AAPM, said the CDC guidance “leaves much to be desired,” particularly regarding the limitations on dose, duration of treatment and arbitrary dosing threshold (32, 32). “Our concern is that, based on experience when states have implemented similar guidelines, some clinicians will interpret these ‘soft limits’ and thresholds as absolute ceiling doses, and that people with pain will suffer needlessly as a result,” Twillman said (32).

On August 29, 2016, a group of scientists from the CDC itself expressed integrity concerns about the agency’s data and its “the current state of ethics,” noting that “[i]t appears that our mission is being influenced and shaped by outside parties and rogue interests (34),” without specifically identifying PROP as one of those forces. Calling themselves the “CDC Spider Group (CDC Scientists Preserving Integrity, Diligence and Ethics in Research),” they reached out to Carmen S. Villar, MSW Chief of Staff, Office of the Director for the CDC, plainly stating that CDC “data were clearly manipulated in irregular ways” for political purposes (34). In October 2016, an article echoed similar concerns regarding CDC’s manipulation of data in a variety of projects, again alleging that the CDC was being influenced by corporate and political interests in a way that compromised its data collection (34). Despite these warnings, the 2016 CDC Opioid Prescribing Guidelines were implemented as planned.

Unintended Harms and the Backlash Against Misapplication of the CDC Guidelines

Just two years later, yet another article authored by CDC scientists was published in April 2018, again calling into question the methodology used by CDC to estimate opioid overdose deaths (35). The authors alleged that the CDC traditional method for calculating opioid overdose deaths overestimated deaths due to prescription opioids because the CDC failed to account for the emergence of illegally-manufactured fentanyl (IMF) as a cause of overdoses in its methodology (35). The authors proposed a method that would exclude IMF-related deaths for a more accurate estimate of total opioid overdose deaths (35). Using its traditional method, the CDC “estimated 32,445 prescription opioid–involved deaths occur[ing] in 2016.” Using these authors’ proposed “more conservative method, 17,087 prescription opioid–involved deaths occurred in 2016.” The concerned scientists concluded that “obtaining an accurate count of the true burden and differentiating between prescription and illicit opioid-involved deaths [was] essential to implement and evaluate public health and public safety efforts (35).”

In addition to concerns about the accuracy of CDC’s overdose data, by 2018 it had become clear that misapplication of its Pain Guidelines had begun to contribute to deaths from “suicides within and outside of the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in the United States” from forced or involuntary tapers off of opioid analgesics (36). Although the CDC had designed the Guidelines “as non-mandatory guidance for primary care physicians[,] legislators, pharmacy chains, insurers, and others [had] seized on certain parts of its dosage and supply recommendations and translated them into blanket limits in law[s] and mandatory policy (37).” These misapplications and unintended consequences prompted the passage of an AMA Resolution against ongoing, widespread misapplication of the CDC Pain Guidelines in November 2018 (38). Adopted by the AMA House of Delegates at its November 2018 Interim Meeting, the new AMA policy affirmed that:

    1) “Some patients with acute or chronic pain [may] benefit from taking opioid pain medications at doses greater than generally recommended in the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain and that such care may be medically necessary and appropriate,”

    2) The “AMA advocate against misapplication of the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids by pharmacists, health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, legislatures, and governmental and private regulatory bodies in ways that prevent or limit patients’ medical access to opioid analgesia,” and,

    3) “No entity should use MME (morphine milligram equivalents) 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 Guideline for Prescribing Opioids (38).”

In the months after adoption of this AMA policy change, more clinical professionals and medical societies would actively seek to reverse the harms of the CDC Pain Guidelines’ misapplication.

In December 2018, a group of clinical leaders and international stakeholders in the pain management community signed an open letter calling for urgent action against forced tapering of opioids (36). On February 13, 2019, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American Society of Hematology (ASH) sent a joint letter to Debra Dowell, Chef Medical Officer of the CDC Opioid Response Coordinating Unit, to follow up on a stakeholder meeting that was held on November 8, 2018, during which those professional organizations called for CDC “to address unintended implementation and reimbursement consequences that have been occurring in practice” because of the misapplication of CDC’s Pain Guidelines (39). On February 19, 2019, Dowell answered back in a letter that stated, “The Guideline is not intended to deny any patients who suffer from chronic pain from opioid therapy as an option for pain management (40).” She also wrote, “CDC encourages physicians to continue to use their clinical judgment and base treatment on what they know about their patients, including the use of opioids if determined to be the best course of treatment (40).” This response letter was embargoed for release until April 9, 2019 (40), to coincide with other anticipated press releases related to federal actions regarding misapplication of the Pain Guidelines (see below).

Similarly, on March 6, 2019, a group identified as Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3) called upon “the CDC to follow through with its commitment to evaluate the impact by consulting directly with a wide range of patients and caregivers, and by engaging epidemiologic experts to investigate reported suicides, increases in illicit opioid use and, to the extent possible, expressions of suicidal ideation following involuntary opioid taper or discontinuation (41).” HP3 also urged “the CDC to issue a bold clarification about the 2016 Guideline – what it says and what it does not say, particularly on the matters of opioid taper and discontinuation (41).” The CDC responded on April 10, 2019, noting that “the Guideline does not endorse mandated or abrupt dose reduction or discontinuation, as these actions can result in patient harm (42).”

FDA Warning and CDC Clarification About the Pain Guidelines

FDA Warning Against Rapid Tapers

One day prior to the CDC response letter to HP3 (42), on April 9, 2019, the FDA posted a safety announcement warning against sudden discontinuation of opioid pain medications (43). In the announcement, the FDA noted that it had “received reports of serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased. These include serious withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress, and suicide (43).” This information was also released via a special FDA podcast on 4/17/2019 (44).

CDC Warns Against Misapplication of its Pain Guidelines; PROP Gets Defensive

In view of the embargo for release of the CDC response to the NCCN-ASCO-ASH, which occurred on April 9, 2019 (40), and the CDC response to HP3 (42) on April 10, 2019, it seems likely that the FDA and CDC coordinated their communications to response to the Pain Guideline backlash. CDC then released another embargoed statement on April 24, 2019, in which it advised against the misapplication of its Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain (45). More explicitly, CDC sought to raise “awareness about the following issues that could put patients at risk:

     - Misapplication of recommendations to populations outside of the Guideline’s scope.
     - Misapplication of the Guideline’s dosage recommendation that results in hard limits or ‘cutting off’ opioids.
     - The Guideline does not support abrupt tapering or sudden discontinuation of opioids.
     - Misapplication of the Guideline’s dosage recommendation to patients receiving or starting medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder (45).”

On the heels of this media release, the CDC referenced a companion article published in New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), co-authored by PROP member and CDC Core Group member, Roger Chou, which was available online on April 24, 2019, and in print on June 13, 2019 (46). Those authors also admitted that “some policies and practices purportedly derived from the guideline have in fact been inconsistent with, and often go beyond, its recommendations (46).” But in contrast to the contrite note struck by the CDC media release, the NEJM article vigorously defended the Pain Guidelines, noting that “the medical and health policy communities [had] largely embraced its recommendations” and that “the guideline was rated as high quality by the ECRI Guidelines Trust Scorecard (46).” The NEJM article also dismissed allegations about the lack of transparency in the Guideline creation, noting that the CDC had “engaged clinicians, health systems leaders, payers, and other decision makers in discussions of the guideline’s intent and provided clinical tools, including a mobile application and training, to facilitate appropriate implementation (46).” Notably, the article ended with this disclaimer: “The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (46).”

Undeclared Conflicts of Interest

Less than a month after the printed publication of the Chou’s NEJM article defending the Pain Guidelines, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced obtaining a record-setting $1.4 billion settlement against Reckitt Benckiser, the manufacturer of Suboxone, an opioid addiction treatment drug (47). For years, critics had alleged financial connections between PROP members and Reckitt Benckiser, with suspicions driven by comments by PROP’s Kolodny, who in 2005 - when asked about his financial relationship with the company - replied, “They are not a pharmaceutical company. They make Lysol (48)." In 2015, Reckitt Benckiser had spun off its Suboxone manufacturing to a subsidiary that it named Indivior (49), more commonly identified as its manufacturer currently. Additionally, in recorded testimony during government hearings, Kolodny had encouraged the use of Suboxone as a measure to combat the opioid crisis. In 2011, at a New York State Senate Hearing, then-PROP President Kolodny testified, ““If we want to see a decline in overdose deaths, you have to [sic] provide effective treatment for people who are opioid-addicted. And for this epidemic, that’s probably going to mean buprenorphine (50).” Likewise, during a US Senate Hearing in 2018, Kolodny testified, “The first-line treatment for opioid addiction is buprenorphine, also called ‘’Suboxone.’ Access to this treatment is not sufficient (51).”

Testimony from hearings encouraging the use of Suboxone and deflective comments, like Kolodny’s dismissal about his relationship with Reckitt Benckiser, were less suspicious as betraying conflicting interests before it was revealed that PROP members failed to disclose relevant conflicts of interest when authoring several articles printed in medical journals. Kolodny failed to disclose conflicts of interest pursuant to his executive directorship of PROP and provision of expert witness testimony in malpractice cases involving opioids when he published two articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in October 2017 and April 2018 (52). Similarly, PROP President, Jane Ballantyne, failed to disclose her affiliation with PROP in an “Ideas and Opinions” article, co-authored with PROP members, Anna Lembke and Roger Chau, in Annals of Internal Medicine in 2019 (53, 54). Moreover, PROP’s Mark Sullivan failed to declare a conflict of interest regarding his work on a opioid tapering device, which occurred during his participation in the drafting of the CDC Pain Guidelines, until he was participating in a CDC-sponsored Clinical Outreach and Community Activity, after the Guidelines’ publication (55). More recently, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) updated a “Rapid Response” that accused the AMA of a pharmaceutical industry bias when creating opioid policy, written by several members of PROP, when it was revealed that one of the co-authors, PROP’s Sullivan, did not disclose his competing interest related to his work as an expert witness in cases in Maryland and Missouri (56).

Despite their collective tendency to under-report relevant conflicts of interest in publications, PROP members continued to place themselves successfully in key positions to enhance their ability to shape opioid policy. In early April 2020, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) disclosed for the first time the identity of the authors of the controversial report, “Opioid Treatment for Chronic Pain,” which had concluded “opioids were no more effective in treating pain than nonopioid medication, and that long-term use of opioids increases the risk of abuse, addiction and overdose, especially at high doses (57).” The lead author of that report was revealed to be Roger Chou, a PROP member who has been described as “a vocal critic of opioid prescribing for years (58).” This revelation was especially concerning at the time, because CDC had announced its plans to review and possibly revise the 2016 CDC Pain Guidelines, which were co-authored by Chou, and because the AHRQ study had reaffirmed many of CDC’s still-disputed conclusions about opioid therapy (58).

CDC Begins a Reassessment of the 2016 CDC Pain Guidelines

Open Docket for Comments

On April 17, 2020, the CDC announced “the opening of a docket to obtain comment concerning perspectives on and experiences with pain and pain management, including but not limited to the benefits and harms of opioid use, from patients with acute or chronic pain, patients' family members and/or caregivers, and health care providers who care for patients with pain or conditions that can complicate pain management (59).” Eventually, it received 5,392 comments from patients, physicians, medical organizations, and other stakeholders with feedback about its 2016 Pain Guidelines (60).

The AAHPM did not mince words when commenting about its concerns of misapplication of the CDC Pain Guidelines: “The 2016 Guideline has been broadly misapplied, with devasting effect on patients and prescribers. Forced tapering of patients’ opioid prescriptions has been incentivized and/or mandated, violating ethical and evidentiary norms of medical practice. This has resulted in many patients’ medical deterioration, loss of care relationships, turning to illicit substances/alcohol, and suicidality. Swapping products and formulations to reduce opioid prescriptions where not medically necessary has also led to medical errors. At the same time, prescribers have faced 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 morphine milligram equivalent (MME) thresholds included in the CDC Guideline (61).”

The AMA echoed these concerns, writing “It is clear that the CDC Guideline has harmed many patients—so much so that in 2019, the CDC authors and HHS issued long-overdue, but greatly appreciated, clarifications that states should not use the CDC Guideline to implement an arbitrary threshold (Italics mine, 62). It also noted that “the CDC Guideline has been misapplied as a hard policy threshold by states, health plans, pharmacy chains, and PBMs,” and that “these policies, moreover, have not withstood any meaningful evaluation or data analysis as to whether they have improved pain care or reduced opioid-related harms (62). There also are no data to suggest that payers have increased access to non-opioid pain care options. If one of the goals of the CDC Guideline was to increase access to non-opioid pain care, that has not been realized (62). Rather, there is evidence that payers continue to erect and support barriers to non-opioid pain care (62).” The AMA urged the CDC to rescind policies employed by “many health insurers, pharmacy chains, and PBMs” based on the concept of a hard MME threshold to avoid “harms done to patients as a result of inappropriate tapering or denials of care (62, 63).

In its comments, PROP conceded that reduced opioid prescribing was associated with downward trends in “prescription opioid related morbidity and mortality (64),” but did not acknowledge a concomitant, upward trend in total opioid-related morbidity and mortality from illicit drug, including illegally manufactured fentanyl. They further argued, “For some patients, continued opioid use is necessary not because it effectively manages the pain that prompted opioid prescribing initially, but because continued use averts the negative effects of opioid discontinuation (64),” a claim advocates for patients with chronic pain have labeled as a gaslighting strategy (65). Furthermore, as discussed later in the article, PROP also incorrectly predicted, “The downward trends in new starts of chronic opioid treatment achieved by the 2016 guideline should be seen as a positive development that will encourage people to find alternative means of controlling chronic pain, which though harder to employ than the prescription pad, will ultimately result in better outcomes and less distress (65).”

The BSC/NCIPC Workgroup

On July 6, 2020, the CDC announced the formation of a new Opioid Workgroup and the Board of Scientific Counselors, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (The BSC/NCIPC Workgroup), which would “review the Opioid Workgroup’s report, discuss, deliberate, and provide advice and recommendations for CDC to consider as part of the potential update and/or expansion of the Guideline. The updated and/or expanded Guideline is anticipated to be released in 2022 (66).” This announcement was followed by the release of a PowerPoint Presentation entitled, “Update on the BSC/NCIPC Workgroup,” on July 22, 2020, which elaborated on the process of choosing the new Opioid Workgroup (67). An additional update from October 13, 2020, identified the membership of the Opioid Workgroup – NCIPC BSC Committee Members (68). The updated and/or expanded Pain Guideline was anticipated to be released in 2022 (66), but that timeframe was projected before the full impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Increases in Overdose Deaths and CDC Data Flaws

The February 2021 MMWR Report

While the world anxiously awaited word on any new or revised CDC Pain Guidelines, on February 12, 2021, the MMWR Report (1) mentioned at the top of this commentary quickly captured the attention of those already hungry for news from the CDC, including patients with chronic pain and clinicians who manage that pain. In the setting of a 1,040% increase in “age-adjusted overdose death rates involving synthetic opioids, psychostimulants, cocaine, heroin, and prescription opioids during 2013–2019 (1),” it seemed prudent to critically question PROP’s assertion that “The downward trends in new starts of chronic opioid treatment achieved by the 2016 guideline should be seen as a positive development that will encourage people to find alternative means of controlling chronic pain, which though harder to employ than the prescription pad, will ultimately result in better outcomes and less distress (64).”

On February 16, 2021, in what felt like an effort to draw attention away from the stark reality of the MMWR Report, PROP wrote a letter to AMA President, Susan R. Bailey, regarding “AMA’s Opposition to Dose & Duration Guidance for Opioid Prescribing (69),” based on AMA’s comments to Dr. Deborah Dowell in the CDC Open Docket (61). PROP concomitantly published this letter to the AMA as a “Rapid Response” to an article entitled, “UK recommendations on opioid stewardship (70, 71).” The letter alleged that AMA Opioid Policy was inappropriately influenced by donations from the pharmaceutical industry (69, 70). AMA President, Susan Bailey, quickly responded back to PROP, in a letter dated February 19, 2021, saying “With respect to the issue you raise in your letter, it might be helpful to point out that the CDC authors of the 2016 CDC Guideline themselves have recognized it has been misapplied (Italics mine; 72, 73).” Additionally, Bailey pointed out, “When policies or organizations focus only on the restriction of a legitimate pharmacologic option to help patients with pain, they miss the chance to address the complexity of policies needed to truly help patients with pain. That misguided focus also has led to harmful stigmatization and other stressors. That is why the AMA provided comprehensive recommendations on the 2016 CDC Guideline and why we continue to advocate for policies that support comprehensive, multidisciplinary, multimodal pain care, including opioid therapy when appropriate. If you choose to cite the AMA’s policies in the future, we encourage you to cite them in their entirety to ensure accurate context (72),” and Bailey provided the link for the AMA’s comments to Deborah Dowell to guide PROP when referencing AMA policy in the future (62).

Inaccurate CDC Data on Opioid Deaths

Just a few weeks later, PROP’s troubles worsened, with the publication of an article by John Peppin and John J. Coleman in Pain Therapy (74) that detailed fundamental methodological shortcomings in CDC’s data on prescription overdose deaths (35). The authors held that “CDC erroneously reported prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2016 and for more than a decade before (74)” in a way that overestimated overdose deaths due to prescribed opioids. They further assert that “the CDC ignored the problem until 2016 data showed serious inconsistencies with other, more reputable, data for prescribing volumes of opioids (74).” Furthermore, in “2018, the U.S. Congress mandated the CDC to ‘’modernize’’ its system for reporting drug overdose deaths but this has not yet occurred (74).” They concluded: “For more than a decade, millions of Americans were misled into believing that—as a White House report once characterized it— ‘opiate overdoses, once almost always due to heroin use, are now increasingly due to abuse of prescription painkillers.’ Little did they know or suspect that the CDC’s coding of prescription painkillers included non-prescribed illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs and non-prescribed methadone administered or dispensed to patients being treated for opioid use disorder (74).”

This report again exposed PROP’s and CDC’s false narrative that overprescribing of opioid analgesics had driven the US overdose crisis (74). In a predictable response, Andrew Kolodny reacted quickly to soften the crushing blow and establish some semblance of plausible deniability for PROP’s culpability. On March 22, 2021, Kolodny produced a webinar during which he “refuted” several alleged “myths and false narratives” about the opioid crisis (75). This presentation was swiftly characterized as “a rambling dialogue by Kolodny that gaslighted pain sufferers, doctors, patient advocates and anyone else critical of the CDC guideline (76).” For example, in a clear example of a Straw Man Argument (77), Kolodny alleged a myth that the “CDC Guideline forced millions of patients off opioids resulting in an epidemic of suicides (75),” when in fact both the CDC and FDA had publicly acknowledged the potential harms of forced tapers, acknowledging that the extent of the harm was not yet known (Italics mine, 42-45). In response to legitimate concerns about harms from polices influenced by PROP’s advocacy, one of its individual members had responded with gaslighting (75), informal fallacies (77) and deflection, aimed apparently at creating plausible deniability for their contribution to those harms.


Despite being turned back from an effort to bluntly reduce opioid prescribing by the FDA in 2013 based on a lack of scientific evidence for its position (17,18), PROP has had a disproportionate effect on opioid policy in the Untied States for almost a decade. PROP found a willing federal regulatory partner in the CDC, and while PROP may not have “secretly written” the 2016 CDC Pain Guidelines (75), they certainly enjoyed disproportionate representation on CDC’s review panels and Core Expert Group (23-25) in a process that lacked transparency (22, 23, 26, 27). When the CDC admitted that its Pain Guideline had been widely misapplied (40) and joined the FDA in a call against forced opioid tapers (42, 43, 45), PROP doubled down on its rhetoric (46), dismissing legitimate concerns about potential harms in a performative manner (75) that encouraged their ongoing misapplication, while assailing PROP’s critics (76, 77). All of this has occurred as PROP members have repeatedly concealed relevant conflicts of interest, including key conflicts that should have been disclosed during the process of drafting the CDC Pain Guidelines (48-54).

Given this, at a minimum, PROP should no longer enjoy a prominent role in guiding future opioid policy in the United States. This is a particularly urgent concern, as Roger Chou has been linked to authorship of CDC’s New Pain Guidelines, which have not yet been released to the public (78). Chou’s involvement in yet another set of Guidelines and CDC’s recurrent lack of transparency (79) in identifying the new Guidelines’ authors should alarm all advocates who support access to pain medications for all patients with a medically legitimate indication for opioid therapy.

Beyond limiting PROP’s role in developing future, potentially harmful opioid policy, a reasonable individual would be justified in wondering to what extent PROP bears culpability for the harms that arose from misapplications of the 2016 CDC Pain Guidelines. In our country, civil suits – like class action lawsuits, for example – only require a preponderance of the evidence – that is something is “more likely than not” - as the burden of proof for liability. It is more likely than not that PROP’s efforts to affect opioid policy helped shape the CDC Guidelines, which CDC has admitted were misapplied harmfully (40). It is also more likely than not that PROP’s performative advocacy efforts contributed to misapplication of the CDC Guidelines. And it is more likely than not that widespread misapplication of the CDC Guidelines resulted in harms with attendant civil liability. This would expose PROP to civil liability with a potentially enormous settlement if a class action suit were to arise from those harmed by the misapplication of the CDC Guidelines. Perhaps that is why PROP member, Andrew Kolodny, and others have worked so hard recently to create plausibly deniability (75) in the wake of the damaging February 12, 2021, MMWR Report (2).

For more Pallimed posts about opioids.
For more Pallimed posts about pain and pain control.
For more Pallimed posts by Dr. Kollas click here.

Dr. Kollas is board certified in internal medicine and provides pallative and supportive care in Orlando, FL.. He first wrote about his personal experiences with chronic illness and pain in a 1997 article in the “On Being a Patient” series in Annals of Internal Medicine. You can find him on Twitter at @ChadDKollas.

To cite this article: Kollas C. Mandated PROP’s Disproportionate Influence on U.S. Opioid Policy: The Harms of Intended Consequences. Pallimed. May 2021. Available at:

Correction 5/4/2021: A date was incorrectly included in the original article as "April 9, 2021," which was incorrect. It was changed to the correct date of "April 9, 2019."

Addition 5/6/2021: A Twitter user was able to find the PDF link to Reference number 40. The reference was updated with this link.

Conflict of Interest (submitted upon publication, added here 5/4): Dr. Kollas had submitted a Conflict of Interest statement when submitting this article for publication. It was not originally included in error in the original article here due to editor error. You can find the conflict of interest statement here - We have a copy of the COI statement, if this link ever is removed or in error.


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Monday, May 3, 2021 by Pallimed Editor ·

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