Despite efforts at the federal level (CDC guidelines - such as they are, the Obama administration committing $1 billion to fight drug abuse, etc.), the real public policy movement on prescription drug and heroin abuse is happening at the state level. And it's happening fast.
This morning, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law new restrictions on opioid prescriptions in his state. Perhaps most notably, new opioid prescriptions are not to exceed a 7 day supply. This is groundbreaking legislation and could lead to similar bills throughout the country. Yes, there are carve outs for cancer patients and chronic pain patients, but these are reasonable caveats necessary to maintain access to care. Whether or not opioids are medically necessary for most chronic pain patients (they're not) is a separate discussion. This law will help prevent dependence and addiction in new patients. We still have a lot of work to do with the existing chronic pain population. One more tidbit - there's no exception for work comp. I've scoured the 42 pages of the bill and injured workers will be subject to the same protocol as everyone else.
From today's New York Times, a recap of state-level efforts to curb painkiller and heroin abuse (highlighting the above mentioned efforts in Massachusetts). Did you know that there are 375 proposals moving through state legislatures nationwide regarding prescription painkillers, pain clinics, and other aspects of treatment? That's a dizzying pace of regulation. The fault, our governors have decided, will not fall to the underlings of the federal bureaucracy - they're going to do something about this. Now. Governor Pete Shumlin of Vermont, who devoted the entirety of his 2014 State of the State speech to this topic, summed it up best: "The states are going to lead on this because Big Pharma has too much power." I'd add that state medical associations have a lot of power, too, but they've come to the table across the country. In Massachusetts, the president of the state's medical society put in plainly: "Usually we are opposed to carving anything in stone that has to do with medical practice. But we are willing to go forward with this limitation [the 7 day supply restriction] because we recognize this is a unique public health crisis."
The Times also has a piece today covering direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for pharmaceutical products, a practice that the American Medical Association has advocated be banned. The research suggests that there may be benefits to DTC advertising. Yes, utilization of advertised drugs goes up. But so does utilization of competitive drugs in the same class. The article seems to think this is good news - conditions historically stigmatized (like depression) are being treated more frequently because DTC advertising is prompting doctor-patient conversations that might not have taken place otherwise. I acknowledge this is a good thing, but can we not come up with a better way to remove stigma and treat mental health conditions than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads? Finally, there appears to be an uptick in patient medication compliance as a result of DTC advertising (you see the ad, you're reminded to take the pill that's already been prescribed to you). That's great, but again... can we not come up with better approaches to patient medication compliance? I still think the risks and costs of DTC advertising outweigh the benefits.
Lots going on. I sense progress.
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