The Backlash of Government’s Efforts to Curb Opioid Prescribing

The Backlash of Government’s Efforts to Curb Opioid Prescribing by Lynn R. Webster @LynnRWebsterMD

Turn the Tide Campaign Brings Unintended Consequences 

It began just about a year ago, when the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain provided “recommendations for primary care clinicians who were prescribing opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care.” The emphasis is mine. The goal, as the CDC’s web site stated, was to improve “… the way opioids are prescribed through clinical practice guidelines” and to “ensure patients have access to safer, more effective chronic pain treatment while reducing the number of people who misuse, abuse, or overdose from these drugs.”

On August 24, 2016, soon after the CDC had shared its guideline, then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy sent a personal letter to more than 2.3 million health care practitioners and public health leaders asking them to “turn the tide” of opioid addiction, and he touted the CDC guideline as a “good place to start.” In other words, his letter suggested that cutting back on the number of opioid prescriptions was a priority for ending the opioid epidemic.

Chronic Pain Patients Speak Out

Dr. Murthy’s Turn the Tide campaign was his attempt to improve the opioid crisis and lower the number of overdose deaths. However, the government’s push to adopt the CDC guideline and the Turn the Tide campaign has had the unintended consequence of making it harder for some chronic pain patients to get the treatment they need.

Following these interventions, I received an immediate increase of emails from people in pain from everywhere in the country who were desperate for help after their pain management physicians found themselves unable to provide their patients with the care they had relied on. Here are excerpts:

  • I am a chronic pain patient. I have been on opioid pain medication for over 5 years now. I recently had my pain management doctor (I saw her for close to 3-4 years) abruptly drop all her pain patients. I and many other patients were left scrambling to find another pain management doctor. They are nowhere to be found now. Right now, I am looking to find another doctor but I have to tell you they are fleeing from pain management. If I am stuck in a situation where I cannot find relief and have had my pain medication completely taken away from me, then I too have considered suicide as a possible option, because I don’t want to live with this horrible pain knowing that I won’t be able to function and have a life.
  • I can’t understand why the FDA is hurting doctors who genuinely care and patients who try to work and survive through unbearable pain. Do they want people to turn to dealers to keep from suicide? I get there’s abuse of all meds, but why punish everyone? Educate people to lock up meds and protect them from teens, children, etc. It’s awful. It will increase crime and turn things upside down.
  • I lay in bed crying with a heat lamp on me researching painless ways to commit suicide. Those idiots pushed me over the edge. My mental health has rapidly declined as all I see before me is a sea of untreated pain. I was treated as if I was “seeking drugs!” I have NEVER abused a painkiller! What gives the people at the DEA the right to deny me relief and push me into ending my life?

Medical Professionals Face Increased Scrutiny

According to the Post-Gazette, state medical boards issue and regulate medical licenses. However, “doctors must register for a [Drug Enforcement Administration] DEA license to prescribe controlled substances.” The Post-Gazette reports that, “Thousands of medical professionals have quietly signed away their rights to prescribe narcotics — and, in many cases, their careers — in recent years in a little-discussed part of the federal crackdown on prescribing that has some doctors’ advocates crying foul.”

The federal crackdown didn’t begin with the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. In fact, the Post-Gazette says, “From 2011 to 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration accepted the surrender of 3,679 prescribing licenses nationwide, and revoked another 99.”

The Post-Gazette explains how the process works. “When federal agents rush into the office of a physician accused of prescribing too many pain pills, they often offer up a one-page form through which the doctor can surrender his right to prescribe many drugs.” That means the physician is no longer able to provide the opioids their pain patients may rely on.

People in Pain Lack Compassionate Care

Overprescribing has been a major problem, particularly in acute pain care where large amounts of an opioid are prescribed when only a few days of treatment with opioids is necessary. Other physicians have been caught up in egregious illegal activity, usually for profit. The former group should be educated to prescribe more appropriately. The latter group should not be allowed to prescribe.

Increased prosecution, excessive opioid prescribing, and government’s interventions to curb prescribing have created the perfect storm that is leaving millions of people in pain without compassionate care.

Many doctors are feeling forced to choose between trying to help patients with complex medical problems and possibly losing their license, or having to refuse to treat them all together. There is something seriously wrong when these are the only two options physicians feel are available to them.




  1. Scott michaels on May 15, 2017 at 10:20 am

    The failed DEA should be FOCused on illegal drugs like heroin bombarding ouR streets. Instead theY go for the loW hanging fruit. Easy non coMbative targets of DOCTORS just trying to help people. The DEA should NOT BE INVOLVED IN LICENSING DOCTORS. THAT SHOULD BE DONE AND REGULATED BY THE AMA. DEA ARE LOW GRADE THUGS. COWARDS THAT ARE AFRAID TO GO AFTER THE CARTELLS. There is a heroin epidemic not an opioid epidemic. Nunkies dont want pain.pills anymore. The HEROIN is too good and pure.

  2. Tina on May 15, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    I was just abandoned by my pain management doctor in Alabama due to CDC Guidelines. Before that, my pain management doctor of 10 years was closed down by the DEA. I’m worried and scared that I won’t find someone to take me. I don’t know what to do. Pain doctors in Alabama are being closed down rapidly. You always write great articles and provide good information.

  3. John S on May 15, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    ” DEA declared war against pain patients ” – it’s finally a war that can be won. Never mind that millions get badly hurt because the DEA must show a Stroke in the WIN colum.

    I’ve requested a DEA interview for research that I can use in my book, so far I’ve gotten no answer.

    It’s not about ” solving a problem ” it’s about perception & how the DEA / CDC looks to the public in response to the OD death surge. How they will explain the increase in Deaths will surely be a REVELATION to us all.

    Ask yourself: When was the last time the Federal Government stepped in & solved a problem ? I

  4. Liz Clark on May 16, 2017 at 9:59 am

    The only option left for many pain patients is to go to a methadone clinic where they can receive only one daily dose that won’t stop pain for 24 hours. This is insane. If they can’t deal with all the rules and regulations and total involvement of the clinic in their lives, they are left withdrawing for 2 months instead of 2 weeks. I despise our current government and its agenda!

  5. Derek on May 16, 2017 at 10:06 am

    It is ludicrous for the DEA to expect that the millions of Americans currently suffering with chronic pain are going to be magically cured overnight? The backlash has barely begun…

  6. Gbl on May 27, 2017 at 12:05 am

    Well I agree. Im in so much pain. Im setting things up for my autistic bipolar disabled son. Suicide is my choice . god forgive me but he supposed to see and feel my pain.

  7. AngelMom on May 27, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    I’m 36 years old, I’ve been prescribed combination opioid therapy for 24 years for an incurable complex set of medical problems. The state of Washington abruptly suspended my pain doctor’s license to prescribe. Because I’m a younger person, who’s taking what my state refers to as high dose opioids I’ve found no one willing to help me even when I’d reduce my medications if I can have just one hour of relief each day. For the last 5 months since my doctor’s license suspension I’ve lost my ability to work to leave my bed. I went from a limited function to no function. Cruel doesn’t begin to describe the suffering I’m daily forced to endure. When my pain is uncontrolled it lowers my seizure threshold, it causes a cascade of problems for me. None of my doctors none of my specialists are prescribing any longer as my state goes after anyone that does, some of the corporate medical practices now set arbitrary limits themselves or have done away with it altogether. At 36 my life is over, I’ve stopped taking my other life saving medications as what’s the point of living if it’s spent in misery, is it even living

  8. AJ on August 16, 2017 at 10:26 am

    At least we have the right to bear arms. This is deliberate. Hitler did the same thing. For a lot of people going to work and doing the things they love are what quality of life are all about. I don’t blame people who are now bedridden for contemplating and committing suicide.

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