The quick answer to the question “Will treatment providers be able to treat patients coming in addicted to opioids because they have been thrown off their pain medications next year?” is no. The treatment system can’t even treat all the patients who need help now. But this question is on the minds of federal policymakers as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works on its forthcoming guidelines for physicians on prescribing opioids, due out next January (see ADAW, Nov. 16).

While the pain community is creating the loudest noise about the forthcoming guidelines, charging that they are not addicts and don’t want to be lumped in with them, the treatment community has on the one hand seen the benefits of decreasing the amount of prescription opioids available, but also seen the downside: patients who are dependent or addicted, who cannot successfully taper off the pain medications, will switch to heroin. Many started as legitimate pain patients. But for some, when their doctors felt they no longer needed the pain medication, or thought the patient was doctor-shopping, or simply decided to go along with the calls to reduce the amount of prescriptions for opioids, it was difficult to stop, and they sought illicit sources of opioids.

Even though the CDC did not disclose this information to us, the leaked draft guidelines show that the CDC does recommend there be an arrangement for treatment, calling specifically for an opioid agonist (methadone or buprenorphine) for a pain patient who needs it:

“Providers should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually opioid agonist treatment in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid use disorder.”

SAMHSA working with CDC

But how the primary care physician determines whether a patient has an opioid use disorder is unclear. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) expects there to be a change in prescribing practices — that’s the whole point of the guidelines. But according to Robert Lubran, director of the Division of Pharmacologic Therapies at SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), it’s up to the physicians who are prescribing the medications to come up with a referral plan for their patients. “I go back to what Westley Clark always said,” Lubran told ADAW, referring to the former director of CSAT. “He said the physician has to have an exit strategy for a patient he isn’t going to be prescribing opioids for anymore.” The physician has to determine if the patient is dependent on or addicted to the medication. Dependence is a normal result of regular opioid intake, addiction is pathological, but both will result in withdrawal symptoms when opioids are stopped suddenly. Someone who is dependent can be slowly tapered off the opioids and endure the craving that ensues. Someone who is addicted cannot stop and will seek opioids from another source.

“There has to be a place where the doctor can refer someone when the doctor determines that the patient can’t be safely tapered down because they are addicted,” said Lubran. A treatment provider specializing in opioid use disorders, such as an opioid treatment program (OTP) or office-based opioid treatment (OBOT), would be a good solution, he said. “We’re working with the CDC to make sure the guidelines include information on where to refer these patients,” Lubran told ADAW.

“We’re already struggling on the traditional medicine side with how a patient goes from being a pain patient to being an addict,” said Lubran. “They discharge them, but what about referrals? More states and counties need to be involved in recommendations for care,” said Lubran, adding that insurance companies need to be involved as well.

Guidelines not mandatory

Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence (AATOD), said that as far as he knows, OTPs have not been involved in the development of the CDC guidelines. However, he expressed skepticism about the effect of the guidelines. “Will there be a reaction by physicians? Will this really change their practice patterns? Will there necessarily be a wholesale dumping of patients who are getting pain medications? I would hope not. But if that is the result, I would ask how we are going to know whether these patients will show up in treatment, or go into the street for drugs?”

Furthermore, said Parrino, these are just guidelines from the CDC. “Doctors aren’t even required to read the stuff,” he said. “They’ll issue a big press statement, yes. But it’s like package inserts. Do you really think every physician will be watching their computer for the guidelines, saying ‘Now I need to change my medical practice?’”

The CDC itself says as much. “It is important to note that, like other CDC guidelines, including prevention and treatment of sexually treated diseases, the guidelines are intended to support informed clinical decision-making but are not mandatory (that is, physicians are not required to follow these guidelines),” according to Courtney Lenard of the CDC’s press office. The CDC’s guideline is meant to “help primary care doctors provide safer, more effective care for patients with chronic pain” and at the same time “help reduce use, abuse and overdose from these powerful drugs,” the CDC’s press office told us last week. “The guideline is intended for primary care providers who treat adult patients (age 18 and older) for chronic pain in outpatient settings, and is not intended for patients who are in active cancer treatment, palliative care or end-of-life care.”

Asked if restrictions on prescription opioids will lead to increased use of heroin, however, the CDC continued to stick to the federal official answer, which is: No. “There is no robust evidence that recently enacted policies regarding prescription opioids are responsible for large-scale shifts to heroin,” said Lenard, adding that only 1 in 25 people who use prescription opioids nonmedically start using heroin within five years. However, she added that this “translates into a major and growing epidemic of heroin use given how widespread the misuse of prescription opioids has become.” Stopping the misuse of prescription opioids is the best way to stop the heroin epidemic, according to the CDC.

The Pain News Network published the leaked draft of the guidelines in September showing that opioids will be discouraged for chronic pain: www.painnewsnetwork.org/stories/2015/9/16/cdc-opioids-not-preferred-treatment-for-chronic-pain.