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A controversial, first-in-the-nation proposal would end coverage of opioids for chronic pain patients enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan.

PARIS ACHEN/CAPITAL BUREAU - Chronic pain patients protest outside of the Oregon Health Authority office in Salem in July 2018.The public will have another chance to speak Thursday, Sept. 20, on a controversial proposal that would end coverage of opioids for some chronic pain patients enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan — the state version of Medicaid.

The patients could see their opioid prescriptions phased out over a 12-month period beginning in 2020.

Officials with the Oregon Health Authority already have received more than 400 emails from patients and 14 from providers largely opposing the policy change.

The state Chronic Pain Task Force will convene from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sept. 20 in the Candlewood Room at Wilsonville Holiday Inn, 25425 S.W. 95th Ave. in Wilsonville, to review emailed comments, consider refinement of the policy and take additional public comments at the meeting.

Dr. Dana Hargunani, OHA chief medical officer, has said the proposal is intended to reduce the risk of addiction and overdose among chronic pain patients.

Proponents of the policy cite statistics from the National Institute of Drug Abuse showing that nearly 80 percent of heroin users first use prescription opioids. Only 4 percent of prescription opioid users start using heroin within five years.

Oregon had a more than 5 percent spike in drug overdose deaths in the 12-month period ending April 3, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Critics argue that the policy change could drive some chronic pain patients to seek opioid painkillers on the illicit market or, worse, turn to suicide for relief.

The proposal follows guidelines that the Health Evidence Review Commission approved in 2015 for patients with back pain. In place of opioids, the Oregon Health Plan would offer treatments not previously covered by Medicaid. Those could include cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture and other treatments.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
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