For the third year in a row, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is proposing another round of cuts in the supply of opioid pain medication – a 10% reduction in manufacturing quotas in 2019 for several widely used opioids. The Trump Administration says the pain relievers are “frequently misused” and reducing their supply will help prevent addiction and abuse.
The DEA proposal involves six opioids classified as Schedule II controlled substances: oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, morphine, and fentanyl. Some of the medications are already in short supply, forcing some hospitals to use other pain relievers to treat surgery and trauma patients.
“President Trump has set the ambitious goal of reducing opioid prescription rates by one-third in three years. We embrace that goal and are resolutely committed to reaching it,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “We have already made significant progress in reducing prescription rates over the past year. Cutting opioid production quotas by an average of ten percent next year will help us continue that progress and make it harder to divert these drugs for abuse.”
The production cuts have had no effect on reducing the nation’s soaring overdose rate. According to a preliminary report released this week by the CDC, over 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 6 percent increase from 2016. The rising death toll is primarily attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine. Overdoses involving prescription opioids appear to have leveled off.
The DEA’s latest round of production cuts is in line with President Trump’s “Safe Prescribing Plan” which seeks to reduce “the over-prescription of opioids” by cutting nationwide opioid prescription fills by one-third within three years.
“We’ve lost too many lives to the opioid epidemic and families and communities suffer tragic consequences every day,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon. “This significant drop in prescriptions by doctors and DEA’s production quota adjustment will continue to reduce the amount of drugs available for illicit diversion and abuse while ensuring that patients will continue to have access to proper medicine.”
‘Serious Consequences’ for Patients
But legitimate patients are losing access to opioids. Many hospitals and hospices now face a chronic shortage of three intravenous or injectable opioids — morphine, hydromorphone and fentanyl — which are used to treat patients recovering from surgery or trauma. Shortages of these “parenteral” drugs have been primarily blamed on manufacturing problems, although some critics say it has been worsened by the DEA production cuts.
“The shortage has serious consequences for patients and physicians. Parenteral opioids provide fast and reliable analgesia for patients admitted to the hospital with poorly controlled pain, patients who have undergone painful procedures such as major surgery, and those who were previously on oral opioid regimens but are unable to continue treatment by mouth,” Edward Bruera, MD, an oncologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, wrote in an op/ed published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine.
“Shortages of the three best-known parenteral opioids may increase the risk for medication errors when it becomes necessary to switch a patient to a less familiar drug or to use opioid-sparing drug combinations. Opioids are already among the drugs most frequently involved in medication errors in hospitals. There are also increased risks of delayed time to analgesia and of side effects resulting in unnecessary patient suffering and delayed hospital discharge.”
Although opioid prescribing guidelines are only intended for physicians treating patients with “chronic non-cancer pain,” Bruera says some cancer patients are being affected by opioid shortages and over-zealous enforcement of prescribing guidelines.
“Most hospitalized patients and almost all patients with cancer need opioids, either on a temporary basis after surgery or painful treatments such as stem-cell transplantation, or longer for cancer-related pain or dyspnea,” he wrote. “It is impossible to appropriately treat such a large number of patients unless most physicians are able and willing to prescribe opioids. There were not enough palliative care and pain specialists to meet patient needs before the shortages began, and universal referral of patients who need parenteral opioids will therefore only result in more undertreated pain.”
The rationale behind the DEA’s production cuts defy some of the agency’s 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.