Critics Say DEA Plan Could Worsen Opioid Shortages

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pain sufferers and patient advocates are overwhelming opposed to plans by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to further restrict the supply of opioid medication to punish drug makers that allow too many of their painkillers to be diverted and abused. Health organizations also caution that the proposal could worsen an acute shortage of pain medication in the nation’s hospitals.

Over 1,500 people left public comments in the Federal Register on the DEA’s plan to change the rules governing opioid production quotas. Under the proposal, the DEA could arbitrarily reduce the amount of opioids a company can make -- even if it has no direct role in the diversion or abuse.

"It’s a common sense idea: the more a drug is diverted, the more its production should be limited," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

But critics say the plan will not prevent opioid abuse and will likely harm patients.

“The DEA has no business deciding how much valid medicine can be produced. The doctors prescribing the medicine should dictate the amount. The DEA is going to cause a crisis,” wrote Tina Liles.

“Reducing opiate medication has done nothing to help the rate of overdose deaths in this country because opioid prescriptions are not the issue in this country it is illicit fentanyl and heroin,” said Nicole Garage.

“Limiting access to the only medication that helps to control severe, intractable pain will not stop the crisis; those who abuse or sell drugs illegally have not stopped due to current quotas and will not stop with any new quota reductions,” said James Loranc.

“The logic (behind) this DEA proposal is completely untested, unproven, and unsupportable. The shortages being seen in hospitals and by pain patients will only get worse with further DEA cutbacks, leading to more mistakes, waste, and higher costs, not to mention additional pain,” said Valerie Padgett Hawk, Director of a Coalition of 50 State Pain Advocacy Groups.  

Hospitals Rationing Opioids

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The shortages mainly involve injectable opioids such as morphine, hydromorphone and fentanyl, which are used to treat acute pain in patients recovering from surgery or trauma. Hospitals have been forced to ration opioids or use other pain medications that are not as effective.

“With limited availability of some opioids, operations may have to be postponed or cancelled.  In some cases, this could prove life‐threatening to the patient,” wrote Janis Orlowski, MD, Chief Health Care Officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges. “We urge the DEA to remember that opioids are also an important part of treatment regimens for controlling acute and chronic pain in a variety of patients – including trauma, postoperative and patients with advanced stage cancer – and any limits on quotas should not negatively impact access for patients that have a legitimate and critical need for these medications.”  

“Please, I beg you, don't do this. My dear friend Sarah takes painkillers for her rheumatoid arthritis. Even with the medication it's terrible; without it, I have no doubt she'll kill herself. Her mental health is already fragile,” wrote Kelsey Hazzard. “This regulation will destroy her.”  

“For the love of God let the doctors and pharmacists handle prescribing and filling prescriptions and allow the patients and doctors to worry about how much opioid pain medication they need to take. This is none of the DEA’s concern!” wrote Brandon Tull, a disabled police officer who shared the tragic story of Jennifer Adams, a Montana pain patient who recently committed suicide.

“That suicide will probably be the first in a long line if you continue this attack upon innocent chronic pain sufferers!”

The public comment period on the DEA proposal ended May 4th. The public was given only 15 days to comment in the Federal Register on the rule change. Public comment periods are usually between 30 and 60 days long, with some taking up to 180 days. Agencies are allowed to use shorter comment periods "when that can be justified."

"This shortened period for public comment is necessary as an element in addressing the largest drug crisis in the nation's history," the DEA said.

The DEA has already made substantial cuts in opioid production quotas, reducing them by 25% in 2017, followed by a 20% cut in 2018. This year’s cuts were ordered despite warnings from drug makers that reduced supplies of opioids “were insufficient to provide for the estimated medical, scientific, research and industrial needs of the United States.”

Under the proposed rules, the DEA would be required to consult with states, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services before setting opioid quotas. The rule change was triggered by a lawsuit filed against the DEA by West Virginia, alleging that the current quota system “unlawfully conflates market demand for dangerous narcotics” with the legitimate needs of pain patients.    

Although overdose deaths from heroin, illicit fentanyl and other street drugs now surpass those from pain medication, the DEA claims prescription opioids are gateway drugs to long-term substance abuse.

“(Opioid) users may be initiated into a life of substance abuse and dependency after first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers or without cost from the family medicine cabinet or from friends. Once ensnared, dependency on potent and dangerous street drugs may ensue,” the DEA said.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), only about 5 percent of patients taking opioids as directed for a year end up with an addiction problem. And the DEA itself estimates that less than 1% of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.