Report: DEA ‘Slow to Respond’ to Opioid Crisis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

DEA investigators should get easier access to prescription drug databases and electronic prescribing should be required for all opioids and other controlled substances, according to a new report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The 77-page report is sharply critical of the Drug Enforcement Administration for its slow response to the opioid crisis and said the agency was “ill-equipped” to monitor suspicious orders and prevent diversion of prescription opioids.

“We found that DEA was slow to respond to the significant increase in the use and diversion of opioids since 2000. We also found that DEA did not use its available resources, including its data systems and strongest administrative enforcement tools, to detect and regulate diversion effectively. Further, we found that DEA policies and regulations did not adequately hold registrants accountable or prevent the diversion of pharmaceutical opioids,” the report found.

The OIG report focused exclusively on prescription opioids and did not evaluate the significant role that illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs play in the opioid crisis. About two-thirds of opioid overdoses involve illicit drugs.

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The report also contains some factual errors, such as the misleading but often repeated claim that “nearly 80 percent of people who began abusing illicit opioids during the 2000s started by abusing a prescription opioid.”

Less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted, but the report claims the “pervasive nature of prescription fraud” is so rampant that paper prescriptions for opioids should be prohibited. Instead, electronic prescribing should be mandated nationwide to prevent fraud and allow for better tracking of opioid prescriptions.

‘Puzzling’ Restrictions on Opioid Databases

The report also calls for greater law enforcement access to state run prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). To protect patient privacy, several states require a subpoena or search warrant before giving DEA investigators access to their databases. The report calls the requirement “puzzling” and said it creates “significant challenges” for DEA investigators “who should be able to receive PDMP data and information.”

“We believe that the Department and DEA should continue to work with states to reach agreements that will enable DEA to have timely access to PDMP prescription data as needed… while also ensuring adequate protections for the important healthcare privacy interests of patients,” the report said.

Other recommendations from the report:

  • DEA should develop a national prescription opioid enforcement strategy

  • Require criminal background checks for all new prescribers and registrants

  • Re-establish a nationwide early warning network to identify emerging trends in drug abuse   

  • Expand DOJ opioid fraud units to additional U.S. Attorney’s Offices

In its response to the OIG, the DEA said the report “rightly identifies areas of improvement,” but said the agency has taken a number of steps to reduce the supply and diversion of prescription opioids.

The DEA said “only a minute fraction” of the more than 1.8 million registrants are involved in illegal activity. The agency said it had revoked about 900 registrations annually over the past eight years and reduced the supply of prescription opioids by 45 percent since 2017. Additional cuts in the opioid supply are proposed for 2020.