By Pat Anson, Editor
A group of 16 U.S. senators played an influential role in getting the Drug Enforcement Administration to make further cuts in the supply of opioid pain medication, the latest example of how politicians have inserted themselves into the healthcare choices of Americans.
As PNN reported, the DEA published an order last week in the Federal Register that cut the 2018 production quotas for Schedule II opioid painkillers by 20 percent. It’s the second year in a row the DEA has ordered steep reductions in the supply of opioids. The move affects several commonly prescribed medications that millions of pain patients rely on for relief, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and codeine.
The DEA acted even after drug makers and patients warned the agency that the cuts were so severe they could lead to shortages of pain medication. Under federal law, the DEA sets production quotas for manufacturers of opioid medication and other controlled substances. This year the agency reduced the amount of almost every Schedule II opioid medication by 25 percent or more.
The 16 senators – 15 Democrats and one independent – have been urging the DEA for months to go even further to reduce the risk of opioid painkillers being abused.
“As the gatekeeper for how many opioids are allowed to be sold legally every year in the United States, we commend DEA on taking initial steps last year to lower production quotas for the first time in a generation,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois wrote in a letter to DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg on July 11.
“However, the 2017 production quota levels for numerous schedule II opioids remain dramatically higher than they were a decade ago. Further reductions, through DEA’s existing quota-setting authority, are necessary to rein in this epidemic.”
Durbin’s letter was co-signed by 15 of his Senate colleagues: Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Edward Markey (D-MA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Al Franken (D-MN) and Angus King (I-ME).
Durbin followed up with a personal meeting with Rosenberg at DEA headquarters on August 3. The meeting was also attended by Senators Brown, Shaheen, Manchin, Markey and Hassan.
“I commend Administrator Rosenberg for acknowledging that the DEA can do more to keep dangerous painkillers off our streets,” Durbin said in a statement after the meeting. “In today’s meeting, I asked him to continue this effort and further lower the opioid quotas for 2018. Fewer pills on the market means less addiction and, hopefully, fewer deaths.”
The August 3 meeting is important, because the very next day the DEA announced it would publish a notice in the Federal Register that it was planning a 20% reduction in Schedule II opioids for 2018.
The notice opened up a 30-day public comment period on the DEA’s proposal. Over a hundred people wrote in, most of them pain sufferers who warned the DEA it was going too far.
“The quotas for 2017 caused some shortages at pharmacies. I do not understand the reasoning behind more aggressive production quotas for 2018. People I know who are long term chronic pain patients have gone to the pharmacy for their prescription and are told that it will be a week or 10 days to fill the prescription,” wrote Marjorie Zimdars-Orthman. “It is cruel to implement quotas that will cause pharmacy shortages.”
“This is just beyond insane. Far too many people are already suffering and committing suicide due to not being able to get proper pain management,” said Eric Busch. “Even those that find a doctor willing to actually treat the pain humanely and write a prescription, might not be able to fill said prescription if there are artificial quotas and shortages.”
“How can the government ensure that these quotas will not adversely affect pain patients?” asked Brian Teer, whose wife has suffered from chronic pain for nearly 20 years. “I implore you to consider the medical needs of unfortunate patients like my wife, who face the burden of untreated intractable pain. Please do not reduce the production of the very medications that she needs to continue living. Please do not take her life.”
The DEA said three unidentified drug makers also made comments, warning that the 2018 quotas for codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, oxycodone and oxymorphone “were insufficient to provide for the estimated medical, scientific, research, and industrial needs of the United States.”
The only comment left in support of the 2018 production quotas included a second letter from Durbin and his colleagues, warning that opioid supplies “remain far too high.”
“Given everything we now know about the threat posed by opioids and DEA’s downstream efforts to tackle this problem, there is no adequate justification for the volume of opioids approved for the market,” the letter said.
In the end, the DEA sided with the 16 senators, ruling that the 2018 opioid quotas were “sufficient” to meet the needs of patients. The agency dismissed the comments from pain sufferers as medical complaints that were “outside of the scope” of its final order.
“These one hundred and six comments did not provide new discrete data for consideration, and do not impact the original analysis involved in establishing the 2018 aggregate production quotas,” wrote Robert Patterson, who became acting head of the DEA after Rosenberg resigned unexpectedly in September.
Opioid Quotas Should ‘Continue to Come Down’
Sen. Durbin and his colleagues are apparently not done yet, and may seek to rein in the supply of opioids even further in 2019.
Durbin recently joined with Sen. Markey in introducing the Opioid QuOTA Act, a bill that seeks more transparency from the DEA in disclosing how it sets opioid production quotas. The legislation would require the agency to list on its website the production quota for each opioid manufacturer, information that the DEA now considers confidential.
“The public deserves the right to know which drug companies are manufacturing these opioids, how many they are producing each year, and their justification for asking the DEA to approve their ever-increasing quota requests,” Durbin said in a statement.
“Our work will not be done until these quotas continue to come down, doctors become more judicious in their prescribing, drug companies stop misleading the public about their products, and we do more to help those who are currently addicted get treatment.”
Along with Durbin and Markey, the legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Manchin, Brown, Shaheen and Hassan – the same group of senators that met with the DEA administrator in August and pressed him to make further cuts in the opioid supply.