U.S. Hydrocodone Prescriptions Dropping

By Pat Anson, Editor

The number of prescriptions filled in the U.S. for hydrocodone declined in 2014, the first concrete evidence that restrictions on the widely used opioid painkiller are starting to have an impact.   

According to the IMS Institute, 119.2 million prescriptions for hydrocodone pain medications were dispensed by pharmacies last year -- down from 129.5 million the year before – a decline of 8 percent. Hydrocodone is typically combined with acetaminophen in Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, Norco, and other hydrocodone products.

The IMS report also found that levothyroxine – a synthetic hormone used to treat thyroid deficiency -- has replaced hydrocodone as the #1 most widely filled prescription in the U.S.

The decline in hydrocodone prescriptions is striking because it was only in the last three months of 2014 that the painkiller was reclassified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from a Schedule III drug to a more restrictive Schedule II medication.

The DEA and Food and Drug Administration have been under pressure to restrict access to opioids because of the so-called epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Over 16,000 Americans die annually from painkiller overdoses, although most of those deaths involve other drugs or alcohol.

“The rise in opioid prescribing, which led to an opioid becoming America’s most prescribed medication, resulted in a public health catastrophe,” said Andrew Kolodny, MD, director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), which played an instrumental role in getting hydrocodone rescheduled.

“The trend is clearly moving in the right direction. I’d predict that up-scheduling will accelerate the decline in prescriptions. This will go a long way toward bringing the opioid crisis under control because with more cautious prescribing we are likely to see less new cases of opioid addiction.

The rescheduling of hydrocodone limits pain patients to an initial 90-day supply of hydrocodone — and also 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.

Since the rescheduling, many patients have complained that their doctors were no longer willing to prescribe hydrocodone and that pharmacists were unwilling to fill valid prescriptions. A recent survey found that many pain patients had suicidal thoughts after being denied a prescription. Others said that rescheduling hard been harmful to their relationship with their doctor.

Hydrocodone prescriptions were dropping even before the rescheduling took effect. They peaked in 2011 with nearly 137 million prescriptions filled by pharmacies.

The IMS report found that prescriptions of tramadol, a weaker Schedule IV opioid, rose by over 5% in 2014 – a possible sign that tramadol is being used as a substitute for hydrocodone. The number of tramadol prescriptions being dispensed has nearly doubled since 2010 from 28 million to over 44.2 million in 2014.

“I predicted tramadol prescriptions would increase,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences.

“I think the overall amount of opioids has declined a little.  Physicians are prescribing less because of publicity, and fear of regulatory interventions. Payers are also limiting what patients can receive. Seems inappropriate that payers have so much control.”

Total spending on all prescription medications in the U.S. rose over 10% to $373.9 billion in 2014, according to IMS, with a record volume of 4.3 billion prescriptions filled.