DEA Adopts Rule to Further Limit Opioid Production

Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Justice Department has finalized a new rule that will allow the Drug Enforcement Administration to reduce the amount of opioid pain medication a drug maker can produce if it finds the opioid is being diverted or misused.

The controversial change in the opioid production quota system was adopted despite warnings from patients, doctors and drug makers that it targets the wrong the problem and could worsen shortages of some pain medications.

The DEA maintains the rule change will “encourage vigilance” on the part of opioid manufacturers to prevent their drugs from being abused.

“These common-sense actions directly respond to the national opioid epidemic by allowing DEA to use drug diversion as a basis to evaluate whether a drug’s production should be reduced,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon in a statement. “This also opens the door for increased communication and better information sharing between DEA and individual states, as we work together to address the opioid problem plaguing our country.”

The final rule greatly enhances the roles played by states and other federal agencies in setting opioid production quotas. It requires DEA to share proposed quotas with state attorneys general, who could object to a quota and demand a hearing.

The rule also allows DEA to consider “relevant information” from all 50 states, the Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, before setting a quota.

"DEA must make sure that we prevent diversion and abuse of prescription opioids. Today's new rule, by taking diversion of these opioids into account, will allow the DEA to be more responsive to the facts on the ground. More importantly, it will help us stop and even prevent diversion from taking place,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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Sessions announced the proposed rule changes in April, and DEA received over 1,500 public comments during an unusually short comment period. A clear majority opposed the new rule.

“This does nothing to stop addiction or overdose deaths. Addicts will find a high anywhere and where they find it now is street drugs! Illicit drugs are what’s killing, not doctor prescribed opioids filled at a pharmacy. The reporting you all are using is inaccurate and false,” wrote Amy Vallejo.

“By creating quotas, and thereby shortages, you are committing torture,” said Kimberley Comfort, who lives with arachnoiditis, a chronic spinal disease. “There is no reason why people having surgeries, people who suffer from incurable diseases, should be left to suffer when we are a nation that has the ability to take care of its citizens. The DEA does not have a clear understanding of the so-called opioid crisis and therefore needs to cease and desist making opiates harder to get.”

“Again, we have the DEA making laws and quotas on something they should not be. Let them worry about the drugs coming in from China, Mexico etc. which are illegal,” said Sarah Yerxa. “By cutting the quotas all they are doing is sending needy pain patients to the streets, which will just raise the addiction... and overdose problem.”

Opioid Shortages

The DEA has already made substantial cuts in opioid production quotas, reducing them by 25 percent in 2017, followed by another 20 percent 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.”

Many hospitals and hospices now face a chronic shortage of intravenous and injectable opioids, which are used to treat patients recovering from surgery or trauma. The shortage has been primarily blamed on manufacturing problems, although some critics say it has been worsened by the DEA production cuts.

“I believe Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs to sit down and talk to some of these physicians who are pain specialists and understand that what he’s doing is going to put the chronic pain patient, the post-operative patient, and the patient that comes to the emergency room in serious jeopardy,” Tony Mack, CEO and chairman of Virpax Pharmaceuticals, told PNN in an earlier interview.

“I think that Jeff Sessions is not educated well. I think he is picking on something that sounds good politically but doesn’t make sense socially. It’s socially irresponsible.”

In a public notice announcing the rule change, the DEA said it was not responsible for “perceived shortages” of injectable drugs and blamed the “manufacturer induced shortages” on “internal business decisions.”

The agency also deflected criticism that it was targeting the wrong problem. Recent studies indicate that overdoses involving illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs now outnumber deaths linked to prescription opioids.   

“The DEA acknowledges that prescriptions for opioid drug products have decreased over the last several years due to the stepped up civil, criminal, and regulatory enforcement efforts of the agency. However, while there is a downward trend in prescribing, these Schedule II prescription opiates continue to have a high potential for abuse and dependence and require the annual assessment of quotas,” the DEA said.

The agency also claimed prescription opioids were “inextricably linked” to overdoses from heroin and illicit fentanyl, because many addicts start by taking pain medication from family medicine cabinets and then move on to street drugs.

The DEA statement defies some of its own analysis. Less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted, according to a 2017 DEA report, which also found that admissions for painkiller abuse to publicly funded addiction treatment facilities have declined significantly since 2011, the same year that opioid prescriptions began dropping.

I’m Ashamed of the U.S. Justice Department

By Drew Pavilonis, Guest Columnist

I was a federal law enforcement officer with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for 14 years. Hard work, a willingness to transfer, and a graduate degree brought fast promotions and a coveted position in management at a DOJ training academy just outside of Denver.

However, a rare type of brain tumor deep in the thalamus brought everything to a sudden halt after ten years in Denver. My doctors initially said the brain tumor was inoperable due to its sensitive location, but the tumor continued to grow, and I eventually flew to Phoenix to have a talented neurosurgeon perform the difficult surgery to remove it.

The thalamus and brainstem proved to be a very challenging surgery and I suffered permanent disability because of it. I spent several months as an inpatient at a neuro-rehabilitation hospital, relearning how to walk and speak, dress and bath myself.

The DOJ medically retired me because cripples can't be law enforcement officers. Fortunately, I had 19 years of federal service and was able to retire with a pension, which was a good thing since I was not able to work due to my significant disability. 

However, the suffering didn’t end there. I developed chronic, debilitating pain 3 years after the surgery.

DREW PAVILONIS

DREW PAVILONIS

Fortunately, at the urging of my sister, I had moved close to Duke University Hospital in North Carolina for follow up medical care. The doctors at Duke hypothesized that my pain was due to scar tissue that formed in my thalamus after the brain surgery. The thalamus is the brain's pain center and my pain “switch” had been permanently turned on.

I was bedridden and prayed for death daily. The pain was so bad that I could not walk. I was taken by ambulance to Duke Hospital for a one week stay as an inpatient and was medically tested to the extreme. Eventually, the doctors determined that I had real pain and referred me to pain management. 

I was prescribed methadone, four times a day. Additionally, to fight the debilitating nerve pain that I also have, I was put on the maximum dose of gabapentin. The medications just allow me to live, much like diabetics need insulin to survive. I am always in pain, but the medications control it to a tolerable level.

I am able to travel internationally (I write this from my hotel room in Berlin, Germany), do volunteer work, and ride an outdoor wheelchair. However, I worry that that I will someday become collateral damage in this “war on opioids.”

I cringe every time I see a journalist cite the CDC report about opioid related deaths in America. That report was full of errors and incorrect by the CDC's own admission. Also concerning are the jack-booted tactics of the DEA, which attacks legitimate pain treatment as if doctors were responsible for all the heroin in the country.

Those rogue tactics have had a chilling effect on the practice of pain management and contributed to a growing number of patient suicides. Many chronic pain patients have taken their own lives because they could not get the appropriate medication that they so desperately need to live.

I never thought I would see human rights violations conducted by my own government against fellow Americans. It is unbelievable.  I no longer tell people that I am retired from the DOJ because I am ashamed of it. I just say that I’m retired from the federal government. That's sad.

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Drew Pavilonis lives in North Carolina.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Fed Prosecutors to Target Doctors and Pharmacists

By Pat Anson, Editor

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced the formation of a special prosecution unit in the U.S. Justice Department to target opioid fraud and abuse.

The 12-member unit will not focus on the flourishing underground trade in heroin and illicit fentanyl, but will instead use healthcare data to identify doctors and pharmacies that prescribe or dispense large amounts of opioid pain medication, and prosecute those suspected of fraud or diversion.

“I have created this unit to focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this opioid epidemic,” Sessions said in a speech at the Columbus Police Academy in Ohio.

“This sort of data analytics team can tell us important information about prescription opioids -- like which physicians are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions; pharmacies that are dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues.”

For the next three years, Sessions said 12 experienced prosecutors will focus solely on investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mills and pharmacies that divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes.

The Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will concentrate on 12 federal court districts around the country:

  1. Middle District of Florida
  2. Eastern District of Michigan
  3. Northern District of Alabama
  4. Eastern District of Tennessee
  5. District of Nevada
  6. Eastern District of Kentucky
  7. District of Maryland
  8. Western District of Pennsylvania
  9. Southern District of Ohio
  10. Eastern District of California
  11. Middle District of North Carolina
  12. Southern District of West Virginia

The Attorney General said preliminary data shows that nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year, but only in passing did he note that many of those deaths were caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl. In some states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, more overdoses are linked to illicit fentanyl than any other drug. The CDC estimated that about one in four overdose deaths in 2015 involved prescription opioids.

Sessions said in recent years some government officials – who he did not identify -- have sent “mixed messages” about the harmful effects of drugs.

“We must not capitulate intellectually or morally to drug use. We must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse. We know this can work. It has worked in the past for drugs, but also for cigarettes and seat belts. A campaign was mounted, it took time, and it was effective. We need to send such a clear message now,” Sessions said. “I issue a plea to all physicians, dentists, pharmacists: slow down. First do no harm.”

Last month the Justice Department announced the largest health care fraud takedown in history, resulting in the arrests of over 400 people around the country. Over 50 of the defendants were doctors charged with opioid-related crimes.

The department also announced the seizure and take down of AlphaBay – a large “dark net” website that hosted over 200,000 listings for synthetic opioids and other illegal drugs.

Sessions has long been a critic of marijuana legalization, but did not mention it in his Columbus speech. In May, he wrote a letter to congressional leaders asking them not to renew a federal law that prevents the Justice Department from interfering with state medical marijuana laws.