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Controlling the Controllers of Controlled Substances

Posted Jun 07 2011 10:50pm

tara-ragone Despite their name and extensive government regulation, controlled dangerous substances (”CDS”) are far from controlled.  Licensed  health care providers are essential cogs in the prescription drug control machine.  Many faithfully execute their responsibility to prescribe CDS only where necessary and appropriate to relieve patient pain.  But sadly, some professionals are aggravating the situation.  Significant percentages of the professional licensing cases that I prosecuted in my previous position as a deputy attorney general in New Jersey involved abuse of prescribed CDS by patients licensed professionals.

Some professionals are completely complicit, brazenly selling prescriptions (and their professional integrity) from their offices or cars.

Others aid and abet misuse by writing prescriptions too freely, for varying reasons and to varying degrees of culpability.  Some wear rose-colored glasses and miss tell-tale warning signs or just like to make people happy and have trouble confronting their patients.   Still others lack the training to know what types of questions to ask to identify drug-seeking behavior or how to effectively and safely combine different drugs to treat patients’ particular problems. Patients can be very skilled at keeping their providers in the dark, so some providers simply do not know that they are feeding a habit.   Others rationalize that it is better to keep their patients coming back for treatment than to send them to the streets for illegal drugs.

And, of course, others conscientiously wrestle with how to balance the need to relieve the very real pain they or their patients are experiencing with the reality that they or their patients are developing addictions.  It’s a thorny thicket, for sure.

No matter the reason, the problem of prescription drug abuse is intensifying , and we need to try something new.  This Spring, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) unveiled “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis,” which is “a multi-agency plan aimed at reducing the ‘epidemic’ of prescription drug abuse in the U.S. including the FDA-backed education program that zeros-in on reducing the misuse and misprescribing of opioids.”  This plan has four main components: improving education of patients and health care providers; expanding state-based prescription drug monitoring programs; improving means for proper disposal of unused CDS from homes; and stepping up enforcement to reduce “pill mills” and doctor-shopping.

As part the education part of the plan, the FDA is working to implement a “Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS)” for extended-release and long-acting opioid products, such as OxyContin and Duragesic (full list of drugs available here ).  As FDA’s consumer update regarding this initiative summarizes, “[t]he new REMS plan focuses primarily on: educating doctors about proper pain management, patient selection, and other requirements and improving patient awareness about how to use these drugs safely.”  On May 16, 2011 , FDA met with an Industry Working Group to discuss these ideas, including how to assess the effectiveness of the REMS plan.

Although generally I applaud any effort to better educate practitioners about the dangers of CDS, I worry how valuable this plan will be once implemented.  For one, it requires drug companies to prepare the educational materials.    Each has an interest in presenting its drug in the best light so that doctors are not afraid to prescribe it.  Would not government-funded, unbiased academic detailers , expert in pain and addiction medicine, be more effective?

In addition, the REMS plan does not doctor training.  If we don’t even lead the horse to water, how can we ever quench its thirst?   How can we hope to affect the prescribing practices of health care providers who do not receive critical training?  It seems indisputably reasonable to require training in CDS prescribing before a practitioner is entrusted with the phenomenal responsibility to write prescriptions for CDS.   (According to a November 18, 2010 article by Susan Okie, M.D. in the New England Journal of Medicine, two FDA advisory committees agree with this requirement.)   This is especially crucial in states like New Jersey, where a medical license is plenary, and thus any licensed physician, regardless how little training in pain management s/he has had, may prescribe pain medicine.

Reportedly , other federal agencies are lobbying Congress to require mandatory physician training as a condition to receiving the Drug Enforcement Administration registration number that doctors must have to prescribe controlled substances.  But generally , the federal DEA registration process looks to state law.  If state law permits a physician to prescribe CDS, there normally is not a separate federal requirement.  This policy respects that licensing is among the states’ traditional police powers.  I expect that Congress is well aware that individual state licensing boards would bristle at Washington dictating the rules governing the practice of professions within their borders.

Not surprisingly, then, some states are not waiting for Congress to act.  According to Dr. Okie , the licensing boards in California, Rhode Island, and West Virginia require some degree of pain-management training.  We need to know what their experiences have been.  Is the training making a difference?  Is there any evidence that requiring training is discouraging doctors from prescribing CDS to patients in pain?

Dr. Okie’s article also details a law that is scheduled to go into effect in Washington state in mid-2011 that will require doctors who prescribe opioids to enter their patients’ clinical responses to treatment in a statewide database and to consult with a pain specialist if the prescribed dose exceeds a threshold.  The hope is that physicians who have thus far not changed their prescribing in response to voluntary educational programs and treatment guidelines may respond if their treatment success is being measured.  But some fear there are too few pain specialists to satisfy the demands imposed by this law.  Some practitioners and patients fear this will just drive patients to street drugs like heroin.

Florida, too, which reportedly is the source of eighty-five percent of the nation’s oxycodone and is known as the nation’s “Pill Mill Capital,” is taking bold steps to address prescription drug abuse.  In addition to increasing oversight of clinics, pharmacies, and wholesale distributors of CDS, its new statute signed into law on June 3, 2011 subjects physicians to administrative criminal penalties for violating prescriptive regulations governing CDS prescribing.  For example, doctors will face a minimum of a six month suspension and $10,000 fine if they overprescribe CDS.  The law also requires certain doctors to register with the State and restricts their ability to prescribe certain controlled substances.  Doctors also must meet more exacting requirements for record keeping, prescription writing, and treatment plans for those receiving CDS.

The Florida law also authorizes the state to create a prescription-drug monitoring database that will help law enforcement track which providers may be indiscriminately prescribing CDS.  Upon request, treating physicians will have access to this data to inform their treatment decisions.  Approximately 34 other states are operating similar databases, although each has its own rules regarding what entities may access the data, what drugs must be reported, etc.

It is beyond the scope of this post to address the policy pros and cons of all of the provisions in Florida’s new law.  With respect to the prescription drug monitoring database, however, I long have thought it would be valuable to provide prescribing providers access to integrated pharmacy records.  I investigated many physicians who had their patients sign agreements promising only to receive CDS from that doctor.   Investigative pharmacy sweeps helped me learn that this doctor was one of many the patients were using to feed their habit.  But doctors in New Jersey have not had any access to this information unless their patients granted it to them.

But that is about to change.  Although it took years to enact, N.J.S.A. 45:1-45 - 1-52 authorizes New Jersey’s prescription monitoring program.  Section 1-46 specifically permits New Jersey physicians to access the program’s data concerning their patients (although physicians are not required to do so).  The same section also permits New Jersey to enter interoperability agreements with other states so that each state may access the other’s data.  The database is not up and running yet, but on April 7, 2011, New Jersey awarded a four-year contract to a company in Ohio to develop the database.

Once this database is operating, it will offer NJ doctors an opportunity to identify which patients are doctor-shopping and tailor their treatment accordingly.  Undoubtedly, there are risks with this system.  Patients may resent that their doctor did not trust them, for example.  In addition, doctors who primarily treat patients in chronic pain could trigger greater scrutiny from regulators because their prescribing of CDS will outpace other providers.  Regulators will need to carefully exercise their investigative powers so as not to discourage physicians from prescribing appropriate CDS.  These risks, however, seem worth the benefit of identifying patients in need of addiction counseling and treatment and reducing diversion.

But we should not rest on assumptions and hopes.  Rather, we should keenly watch what happens in places like California, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Washington, and Florida to evaluate what works and doesn’t.  Professors Diane Hoffmann (see, e.g., here and here [subscription required]) and Anita J. Tarjian (see, e.g., here ) at the University of Maryland and Interim Dean Sandra Johnson at Saint Louis University School of Law (see, e.g., here ), among others , raise significant concerns that aggressive enforcement of CDS restrictions can discourage physicians from prescribing CDS, which leaves un- and under-treated patients in pain.  This is unacceptable.  We should regulate with an appreciation for the strides achieved by efforts like the Mayday Pain Project to provide better care to patients suffering in pain.  By taking measured steps and being willing to tinker with our enforcement regimes as we learn, we may ensure we do not deprive patients of needed medications or scare ethical, competent pain physicians from serving their patients’ needs.

Perhaps the Federation of State Medical Boards will help lead this effort to learn from these varied efforts at the state and federal level.   According to its 2011 Annual Report , over 40 state boards have adopted the Federation’s Model Policy for the Use of Controlled Substances for the Treatment of Pain .  Clearly, state boards, without ceding their independence, look to the Federation for guidance, akin to how states view the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  Its policy paints in relatively broad strokes and has not been updated in more than seven years.  It would be helpful if the Federation would update its policy to reflect the current state of law and research in this area, including the impact of various reform efforts, to help state boards find balance between reining in indiscriminate CDS prescribing and the need to provide medically appropriate palliative care to patients in need.

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