Survey: Two-Thirds of Patients Unable to Get Hydrocodone

By Pat Anson, Editor

About two-thirds of pain patients say they were no longer able to obtain hydrocodone after the opioid painkiller was reclassified by the U.S. government from a Schedule III medication to a more restrictive Schedule II drug, according to the results of a new survey.

Many patients who had been taking hydrocodone at the same dose for years said their doctor would no longer prescribe the painkiller. Over a quarter (27%) said they had suicidal thoughts after being denied a prescription for hydrocodone.

The survey of over 3,000 patients was conducted online by the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association (NFMCPA) and the findings presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. An abstract of “Hydrocodone Rescheduling: The First 100 Days” can be found here.

Hydrocodone was rescheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration in October of last year to combat an “epidemic” of prescription drug abuse. The rescheduling limits patients to an initial 90-day supply and requires them to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a refill. Prescriptions for Schedule II drugs also cannot be phoned or faxed in by physicians.

The reclassification quickly made a drug that was once the most widely prescribed pain medication in the country – at nearly 130 million prescriptions each year – to one of the hardest to get.

Other key findings of the survey:

  • 88% of respondents believe the change to Schedule II denies pain patients the right to adequate pain care.
  • 75% believe the change will not prevent prescription drug abuse.
  • 72% believe the change is harmful to pain patients.
  • 18% said it led to a "worsened relationship" with their doctor.
  • 30% reported "issues" with their pharmacy filling prescriptions.

Patients also reported higher expenses due to increased doctor’s visits, higher co-pays, greater transportation costs to visit the doctor and multiple pharmacies, and lost income due to inability to work because of pain.

The survey is believed to be the first to report on the experiences of pain patients treated with hydrocodone since the rescheduling took effect. The respondents were overwhelmingly female, which reflects the demographics of fibromyalgia and many other chronic pain conditions.

Hydrocodone isn’t the first pain medication to be in short supply. A report released last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) faults the DEA for poor management and “weak internal controls” of the quota system under which controlled substances are produced and distributed.

Between 2001 and 2013, the GAO said there were 87 “critical” shortages of drugs containing controlled substances, over half of them pain relievers. The vast majority of drug shortages lasted over a month and some dragged on for years. An oral solution of oxycodone was difficult to obtain for eight and a half years.

“The shortcomings we have identified prevent DEA from having reasonable assurance that it is prepared to help ensure an adequate and uninterrupted supply of these drugs for legitimate medical need, and to avert or address future shortages. This approach to the management of an important process is untenable and poses a risk to public health,” the report states.