NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The public is invited to comment on newly proposed guidelines that might make it easier for people who need prescription opioids to get them. The rules have changed over the years as the country has grappled with the opioid overdose epidemic.

“I think what’s happening now is we’re looking and saying, okay, we still have an opiate problem, we’re still seeing overdose deaths that are incredibly high. During the pandemic, they’ve only continued to rise and I think that they’re saying, Okay, well, people are having a hard time getting pain medication, but it isn’t stopping the issue that we have with addiction,” said Dr. Erin Calipari, an assistant professor in the Vanderbilt University Department of Pharmacology. “So how do we combat those? And I think it’s a really, really difficult problem.”

The nation’s top public health agency, the CDC, proposes changing the guidelines for U.S. doctors prescribing oxycodone and other opioid painkillers. It would update the guidance from six years ago when the CDC aimed to improve the way opioids were prescribed to ensure patients had access to safer, more effective chronic pain treatment while reducing the number of people who misuse or overdose on these drugs.

“In the state of Tennessee, the prescription rate was really high. So we had 1.5 prescriptions per person,” Dr. Calipari said. “I think that a lot of the regulation was looking at the fact that, as a country, we were prescribing these at such a high rate.”

However, it also caused some doctors to become too strict in keeping the drugs from patients who might benefit or cut them off too soon.

“Some of the regulations, what they did is they made it really, really hard for people to get pain management. I’m a researcher in the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research and things like this make it so clear that we need better research, understanding how we could effectively target the pain with non-addictive drugs,” Dr. Calipari said. “A lot of this regulation comes about because we don’t have effective ways to do pain management with drugs that aren’t addictive.”

She pointed out that COVID-19 vaccines were developed quickly and effectively because of urgency.

“I think that if we’re going to solve this problem, how do we make a non-addictive analgesic? How do we make drugs that can prevent addiction, but let us still use these pain management medications?” She asked. “It needs this kind of community effort. It is possible. We have seen it. The problem is it needs a coordinated effort at the level of the government, the individual, private corporations to say this is a problem that we think is worth solving. And we want to save lives.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, overdose deaths involving any opioid were 21,000 in 2010, 47,000 in 2017, and 68,000 in 2020.

The draft updated Clinical Practice Guideline for Prescribing Opioids is available for public comment in the Federal Register. The public comment period will be open for 60 days,  through April 11, 2022.

“I think public input is critical. As someone who lives in a city, I think we have a perspective that’s really different than rural communities. When you think about how to have pain management, and people have access to these treatments, even when we’re thinking about addiction treatment, so things like methadone, these clinics where people have to go physically be present, when you have rural communities, you have people who have to drive hours to actually get access to these places,” Dr. Calipari said. “You think about elderly individuals that may have trouble getting to where they need to go. And so I think that is really important for the community to bring this up.”

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The CDC encourages all patients, caregivers, providers, and others who care about safe, effective and informed pain treatment options to submit their comments via the Federal Register docket.

“This comment period provides another critical opportunity for diverse audiences to offer their perspective on the draft clinical practice guideline. We want to hear many voices from the public, including people living with pain and the health care providers who help their patients manage pain,” said Christopher M. Jones, PharmD, DrPH, acting director for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “The ultimate goal of this clinical practice guideline is to help people set and achieve their personal goals to reduce their pain and improve their function and quality of life. Getting feedback from the public is essential to achieving this goal.”