CDC clarifies opioid prescribing guidelines in cancer, sickle cell disease


Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have clarified the agency’s guidelines on opioid prescribing after a trio of organizations raised concerns that insurers were inappropriately applying the recommendations to active cancer patients when making coverage determinations.

Dr. Clifford Hudis

The CDC guidelines, released in March 2016, address when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain, opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up, and discontinuation, and assess risk and harms of opioid use. Although the guidelines clearly state they are intended for clinicians prescribing opioids outside of active cancer treatment, insurance companies are still applying the guidelines to opioid coverage decisions for patients with active cancer, according to a Feb. 13, 2019, letter sent to the CDC from leaders at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and the American Society of Hematology.

Additionally, the associations wrote that the CDC’s recommendations pose coverage problems for sickle cell patients and select groups of cancer survivors who may benefit from opioids for pain management. The groups asked the CDC to issue a clarification to ensure appropriate implementation of the opioid recommendations.

In a Feb. 28, 2019, letter to ASCO, NCCN, and ASH, Deborah Dowell, MD, chief medical officer for the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control took note of the concerns, clarifying that the recommendations are not intended to deny clinically appropriate opioid therapy to any patients who suffer chronic pain, but rather to ensure that physicians and patients consider all safe and effective treatment options.

The CDC guidance may apply to cancer survivors in certain conditions, Dr. Dowell wrote, namely when survivors experience chronic pain after cancer treatment completion, are in clinical remission, and are under cancer surveillance only. However, she agreed that, for select groups of cancer survivors with persistent pain caused by past cancer, the ratio of opioid benefits to risks for chronic pain is unique. She referred health providers to guidelines by ASCO on chronic pain management for adult cancer survivors and NCCN guidance on managing adult cancer pain when considering opioids for pain control in such populations.

Special considerations in sickle cell disease may also change the balance of opioid risks to benefits for pain management, Dr. Dowell wrote, referring providers and insurers to additional guidance on sickle cell disease from the National Institute of Health when making treatment and reimbursement decisions.

“Clinical decision making should be based on the relationship between the clinician and patient, with an understanding of the patient’s clinical situation, functioning, and life context, as well as careful consideration of the benefits and risk of all treatment options, including opioid therapy,” Dr. Dowell wrote. “CDC encourages physicians to continue using 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.”

Clifford A. Hudis, MD, CEO of ASCO, praised the clarification, calling the letter necessary to clear up confusion and prevent inappropriate coverage decisions.

“This clarification from CDC is critically important because, while the agency’s guideline clearly states that it is not intended to apply to patients during active cancer and sickle cell disease treatment, many payers have been inappropriately using it to make opioid coverage determinations for those exact populations,” Dr. Hudis said in a statement.

Sickle cell patients suffer from severe, chronic pain, which is debilitating on its own without the added burden of having to constantly appeal coverage denials, added ASH President Roy Silverstein, MD.

“We appreciate CDC’s acknowledgment that the challenges of managing severe and chronic pain in conditions, such as sickle cell disease, require special consideration, and we hope payers will take the CDC’s clarification into account to ensure that patients’ pain management needs are covered,” he said in the same statement.

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