Tag: Chronic Disease Care

New CDC Opioid Guidelines: Too Little, Too Late for Chronic Pain Patients?

Jessica Layman estimates she has called more than 150 doctors in the past few years in her search for someone to prescribe opioids for her chronic pain.

“A lot of them are straight-up insulting,” said the 40-year-old, who lives in Dallas. “They say things like ‘We don’t treat drug addicts.’”

Layman has tried a host of non-opioid treatments to help with the intense daily pain caused by double scoliosis, a collapsed spinal disc, and facet joint arthritis. But she said nothing worked as well as methadone, an opioid she has taken since 2013.

The latest phone calls came late last year, after her previous doctor shuttered his pain medicine practice, she said. She hopes her current doctor won’t do the same. “If something should happen to him, there’s nowhere for me to go,” she said.

Layman is one of the millions in the U.S. living with chronic pain. Many have struggled to get opioid prescriptions written and filled since 2016 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inspired laws cracking down on doctor and pharmacy practices. The CDC recently updated those recommendations to try to ease their impact, but doctors, patients, researchers, and advocates say the damage is done.

“We had a massive opioid problem that needed to be rectified,” said Antonio Ciaccia, president of 3 Axis Advisors, a consulting firm that analyzes prescription drug pricing. “But the federal crackdowns and guidelines have created collateral damage: patients left high and dry.”

Born of an effort to fight the nation’s overdose crisis, the guidance led to legal restrictions on doctors’ ability to prescribe painkillers. The recommendations left many patients grappling with the mental and physical health consequences of rapid dose tapering or abruptly stopping medication they’d been taking for years, which carries risks of withdrawal, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

In November, the agency released new guidelines, encouraging physicians to focus on the individual needs of patients. While the guidelines still say opioids should not be the go-to option for pain, they ease recommendations about dose limits, which were widely viewed as hard rules in the CDC’s 2016 guidance. The new standards also warn doctors about risks associated with rapid dose changes after long-term use.

But some doctors worry the new recommendations will take a long time to make a meaningful change — and may be too little, too late for some patients. The reasons include a lack of coordination from other federal agencies, fear of legal consequences among providers, state policymakers hesitant to tweak laws, and widespread stigma surrounding opioid medication.

The 2016 guidelines for prescribing opioids to people with chronic pain filled a vacuum for state officials searching for solutions to the overdose crisis, said Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

The dozens of laws that states passed limiting how providers prescribe or dispense those medications, she said, had an effect: a decline in opioid prescriptions even as overdoses continued to climb.

The first CDC guidelines “put everybody on notice,’’ said Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, chair of the American Medical Association’s Substance Use and Pain Care Task Force. Physicians reduced the number of opioid pills they prescribe after surgeries, he said. The 2022 revisions are “a dramatic change,” he said.

The human toll of the opioid crisis is hard to overstate. Opioid overdose deaths have risen steadily in the U.S. in the past two decades, with a spike early in the covid-19 pandemic. The CDC says illicit fentanyl has fueled a recent surge in overdose deaths.

Taking into account the perspective of chronic pain patients, the latest recommendations try to scale back some of the harms to people who had benefited from opioids but were cut off, said Dr. Jeanmarie Perrone, director of the Penn Medicine Center for Addiction Medicine and Policy.

“I hope we just continue to spread caution without spreading too much fear about never using opioids,” said Perrone, who helped craft the CDC’s latest recommendations.

Christopher Jones, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said the updated recommendations are not a regulatory mandate but only a tool to help doctors “make informed, person-centered decisions related to pain care.”

Multiple studies question whether opioids are the most effective way to treat chronic pain in the long term. But drug tapering is associated with deaths from overdose and suicide, with risk increasing the longer a person had been taking opioids, according to research by Dr. Stefan Kertesz, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

He said the new CDC guidance reflects “an extraordinary amount of input” from chronic pain patients and their doctors but doubts it will have much of an impact if the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration don’t change how they enforce federal laws.

The FDA approves new drugs and their reformulations, but the guidance it provides for how to start or wean patients could urge clinicians to do so with caution, Kertesz said. The DEA, which investigates physicians suspected of illegally prescribing opioids, declined to comment.

Smith has experienced pain in her left leg since a nerve was cut during surgery years ago. But in December her pharmacy stopped filling her prescriptions for painkillers.(Andy Miller / KHN)

The DEA’s pursuit of doctors put Danny Elliott of Warner Robins, Georgia, in a horrible predicament, said his brother, Jim.

In 1991, Danny, a pharmaceutical company rep, suffered an electric shock. He took pain medicine for the resulting brain injury for years until his doctor faced federal charges of illegally dispensing prescription opioids, Jim said.

Danny turned to doctors out of state — first in Texas and then in California. But Danny’s latest physician had his license suspended by the DEA last year, and he couldn’t find a new doctor who would prescribe those medications, Jim said.

Danny, 61, and his wife, Gretchen, 59, died by suicide in November. “I’m really frustrated and angry about pain patients being cut off,” Jim said.

Danny became an advocate against forced drug tapering before he died. Chronic pain patients who spoke with KHN pointed to his plight in calling for more access to opioid medications.

Even for people with prescriptions, it’s not always easy to get the drugs they need.

Pharmacy chains and drug wholesalers have settled lawsuits for billions of dollars over their alleged role in the opioid crisis. Some pharmacies have seen their opioid allocations limited or cut off, noted Ciaccia, with 3 Axis Advisors.

Rheba Smith, 61, of Atlanta, said that in December her pharmacy stopped filling her prescriptions for Percocet and MS Contin. She had taken those opioid medications for years to manage chronic pain after her iliac nerve was mistakenly cut during surgery, she said.

Smith said she visited nearly two dozen pharmacies in early January but could not find one that would fill her prescriptions. She finally found a local mail-order pharmacy that filled a one-month supply of Percocet. But now that drug and MS Contin are not available, the pharmacy told her.

“It has been a horrible three months. I have been in terrible pain,” Smith said.

Many patients fear a future of constant pain. Layman thinks about the lengths she’d go to in order to get medication.

“Would you be willing to buy drugs off the street? Would you be willing to go to an addiction clinic and try to get pain treatment there? What are you willing to do to stay alive?” she said. “That is what it comes down to.”

After ‘a Lot of Doors Shut in Our Face,’ Crusading Couple Celebrate Passage of Burn Pit Bill

The battle was just beginning for Le Roy Torres and his wife, Rosie, when the Army captain returned to Texas in 2008, already starting to suffer from the toxic substances he’d inhaled from the 10-acre burn pit at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq.

Along the way, Le Roy would lose the job he loved as a Texas state trooper and take his fight all the way to a Supreme Court victory. He would be rushed to the emergency room hundreds of times, be denied health benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs for years, attempt suicide, and seek experimental cures for the damage done to his lungs and brain.

Amid all that, Le Roy and Rosie founded an organization to help others and push Congress to fix the laws that allowed the suffering of veterans to go on, and ultimately enlist people like comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who helped them win a dramatic showdown in the Senate last week.

Their struggle will never really be over. But the Torreses’ campaign to make sure no other veterans experience what they had to ends Aug. 10, when they join President Joe Biden as he signs a law to guarantee that 3.5 million American warriors exposed to similar hazards can get care.

“I mean, to think that 13 years ago we were walking the halls [of Congress] — it’s really emotional,” Rosie said recently, halting to collect herself and wipe back tears, “because I think of all the people that died along the way.”

The bill provides a new entitlement program for veterans who served in a combat zone in the past 32 years. If they are diagnosed with any of 23 conditions identified in the legislation — ranging from specific cancers to breathing ailments — they would be deemed automatically eligible for health coverage. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new benefits would cost $280 billion over the next 10 years.

Most veterans — nearly 80% — who start experiencing symptoms after leaving the service get denied what’s known as a service connection when they seek help from the VA. The system has been designed to disbelieve them, the veterans complain. They must prove their breathing problems or cancers came from the toxic trash smoke they breathed overseas, which is extremely difficult.

When Le Roy got home from the Balad Air Base — the second-largest U.S. post in Iraq and where the military incinerated tons of debris daily, including plastic, ammunition, and medical waste — he was already sick. He was rushed to the hospital a few weeks later with a severe respiratory infection.

He had expected to keep working as a state trooper, but by 2010 it was clear he couldn’t perform all the duties because of his illness. When he asked for a different job with the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was denied. He was told he had to resign if he wanted to apply for medical retirement. The retirement request was then rejected. So he sued and eventually took the case to the Supreme Court, which in June ruled that states were not immune from such lawsuits by service members.

In those early years, the military and VA doctors couldn’t say what caused his breathing problems and splitting headaches. As with other victims of toxic exposure, diagnoses proved to be difficult. Some doctors suggested the problems weren’t real — a pronouncement often encountered by other vets whose claims are denied.

Like so many others, Rosie turned to the internet for information she couldn’t get from the VA, where she had worked for 23 years. She discovered a Facebook group that she would use as the basis for a new advocacy group, Burn Pits 360.

A man in a suit and wearing a nasal cannula stands on the north side of the Capitol building.
In 2008, Le Roy Torres, pictured on Capitol Hill in June 2022, began developing respiratory problems linked to burn pits at an Army base in Iraq. He and his wife, Rosie, founded the advocacy group Burn Pits 360 and fought for years for legislation that would guarantee veterans suffering from those toxic fumes would have their illnesses covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Michael McAuliff for KHN)

Le Roy was ultimately diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, fibrosis of the lungs, and toxic encephalopathy. He eventually got his benefits in early 2013. By then, the family was deep in debt.

For years he lived with the reality that the military he had served for 23 years refused to answer his needs, and the police force he loved didn’t seem to care.

“It’s something that we have now learned is known as moral injury and compound loss,” Rosie said.

As a man, he began to wonder how he could provide for his family, if he was any use to anyone, she added. “So then that led to him attempting to take his life.”

It also led the couple and parents of three to beseech Congress to fix the problems. They started walking the halls in the Capitol. Success there was not any easier.

“We came to Capitol Hill and just handed out information we had printed about burn pit exposure,” Le Roy said at his last visit to the Hill in June, an oxygen tube strung under his nose.

“There were a lot of doors shut in our face,” Rosie said.

While making little progress in Congress, they built Burn Pits 360 into an advocacy group and a clearinghouse to help other veterans similarly frustrated by a system that seemed to be failing them.

The breakthrough for Rosie began when she saw Stewart and 9/11 survivors’ advocate John Feal winning a similar battle to make Congress fully fund health and compensation programs for responders of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. She recalls reading up on the toxic substances in the dust and smoke that spewed from the collapsed twin towers and discovering they were remarkably similar to the poisons inhaled by troops near the waste fires that were also set ablaze with jet fuel.

She called Feal. Feal called Stewart, and by February 2019 the four of them were meeting on Capitol Hill with lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the authors of the 9/11 legislation.

The key, they decided in those first meetings, was to remove the obstacles for the most common illnesses and eliminate the burden of proof on ill former soldiers. Gillibrand’s office wrote that bill, along with Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), who championed it in the House.

Ultimately, that bill became the heart of the measure that passed, known as the PACT Act and named for a soldier who died from cancer linked to his service.

“Our bill was the first federal presumption for burn pits coverage ever. And that was all because of Rosie and Le Roy,” said Gillibrand.

But just as with the 9/11 legislation, many in Congress weren’t that interested.

“It’s about money, and nobody likes to spend money,” Gillibrand said. “Congress never wants to accept the fact that treating these veterans and addressing their health care is the cost of war.”

Weeks ago, the bill appeared ready to glide through. It passed both the House and Senate but needed another vote to fix a technical legislative issue. Then on July 27, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who opposed the measure, unexpectedly persuaded 25 of his Republican colleagues who had supported the bill to vote against it, claiming that because the bill made the spending mandatory — not subject to the annual whims of Congress — Democrats would spend $400 billion elsewhere in the budget. Democrats countered that the money Toomey cited is already being spent and, regardless of how it’s categorized, it’s still up to Congress to appropriate it.

Rosie and veterans who had come to the Capitol that day to celebrate instead had to dig in one more time, with Stewart bringing the high-wattage attention that led the Republicans to reconsider. On Aug. 2, most Republicans decided to agree with the Democrats, and the bill passed 86 to 11.

A woman and a man hug outside the Capitol building.
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart hugs Rosie Torres on Aug. 2, 2022, after the Senate passed the PACT Act. The Torreses campaigned for 13 years for the coverage, but Rosie says the victory is bittersweet “because I think of all the people that died along the way.”(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Rosie said it never would have happened without Feal and Stewart. Stewart said it was all about Rosie, bringing together veterans in a way that Congress couldn’t ignore.

“She’s the reason I’m doing it, her and Le Roy,” Stewart said, standing outside the Capitol with Rosie the day before the vote.

Stewart, the Torreses, and untold other veterans tempered their joy with the warning that it will be a hard journey making the new program work with a VA that already has a massive backlog. The legislation has provisions to create facilities and bring in private doctors, but some vets remain dubious.

Iraq War veteran Brian Alvarado of Long Beach, California, was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer soon after returning from Iraq in 2006. He had been assigned to patrol one of the many burn pits. He eats and breathes through tubes and struggles to keep weight on. Radiation and a tracheostomy have left his voice almost inaudible.

“You can pass laws, but it all boils down to the VA. How are they going to implement the changes? The claims, the compensation, the treatment,” he asked in June. “And how long will it take?”

A gaunt man with a tracheostomy leans against a support column in his home.
Brian Alvarado of Long Beach, California, pictured in 2021, is a Marine Corps veteran who attributes his neck and throat cancer to inhaling smoke from burn pits during the Iraq War. Alvarado worries that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be hard-pressed to handle the influx of cases under the newly passed PACT Act. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

For the time being, though, Rosie said that even more than a visit to the White House, she was looking forward to going back to Texas and her family.

“You know, I lost 13 years away from my children, with trips to the hospital, coming to D.C.,” she said. “It means I can go home.”

Le Roy and Rosie can also reflect that as painful as this path has been, 3.5 million veterans are guaranteed a backstop because of this law, and thousands of veterans and active-duty service members who work for state and local governments now have recourse if they are fired after being injured at war.

“It is good to know that so many people will be helped,” Le Roy said from his home in Robstown, Texas. “It does help.”

KHN reporter Heidi de Marco contributed to this article.

Watch: More Long Covid Cases Seen in Kids

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The vast majority of the pandemic’s 4.1 million covid infections in children have been mild. However, doctors are concerned about a growing number of long-haul covid cases and a rare but dangerous inflammatory disease, particularly among Black and Latino children. KHN correspondent Sarah Varney, in collaboration with PBS NewsHour, reports on the phenomena. This story aired on July 23, 2021.