A colleague who I highly respect just informed me of a woman with intractable angina who had multiple, inserted coronary splints and required a high daily dose of morphine. Without warning, her insurance company arbitrarily decided she did not need opioids. As one might expect, the forced cessation of opioids led to her death.
The forced reduction and/or cessation of daily opioids in stabilized patients have, in some corners of our country, reached the point of unscientific and inhumane hysteria. The craze to fight opioid abuse and force opioid dosages below 100 to 120 mg of morphine equivalents a day (MEQ) is now harming some patients who have been doing quite well on stable, daily opioid dosages. Some of the rhetoric and tactics being used to force opioid reduction are farcical if they weren’t so tragic in their consequences.
First, who is doing the forcing? There are multiple culprits: insurance companies, state legislators, regulators, and suppliers. Some of the tactics to force opioid reduction are indirect, such as limiting the amount of opioids a pharmacy can stock. Others are blatant, such as states that require physicians to seek a pain consultation if they continue to prescribe over a threshold MEQ level, even to patients who have been well maintained for a considerable time period. For example, in Washington State, a 120 mg/d MEQ threshold will trigger the prescribing physician to conduct, or refer the patient for, a pain consultation (exceptions and exemptions do exist). As noted by Stephen J. Ziegler, PhD, JD, “in some states, these thresholds appear in regulations, making the actions required actions, while in other states the thresholds appear in guidelines, making the actions merely recommended.”
Insurance companies are currently the most dangerous “forcers.” Neither patient, pharmacist, nor physician is prepared when a stable, opioid-maintained patient goes to fill a long-standing opioid prescription only to be told their insurance company has suddenly decided the patient should immediately cut their opioid daily dose by 30% to 70%, or even stop it altogether. The saddest aspect of this dangerous practice is that the motive is clearly greed, although the reduction may be accompanied by an “out-of-the-blue” statement that the forced reduction is for the patient’s safety. For example, insurance companies have recently informed long-standing, opioid-maintained patients that they have suddenly and capriciously decided they will no longer cover brand name opioids, injections, patches, compounded formulations, or a daily dosage above a specific level.
Insurance companies and some state guidelines are spitting out two illogical excuses for the forced reduction of opioids. One is that opioids dosages above 120 mg or so of MEQ are unsafe. Show me a study that indicates tissue toxicity of opioids at dosages over 120 mg in patients who have been maintained at a stable dosage for over 1 year. Patients who have been titrated up to dosages above 120 mg of morphine and periodically monitored by competent physicians almost always experience improved health and function, not the reverse. I have several patients who have been safely maintained on high opioid dosages and led quality lives for over 20 years!! Why force these folks into sickness, suffering, and possibly death by suddenly and capriciously claiming their life-saving medication is dangerous?