Democratic senator drops hold on DEA nominee

A Democratic senator announced Wednesday he would release his block on President Obama’s nominee to lead the Drug Enforcement Agency after receiving assurances from the Justice Department it will ease delivery of powerful pain medications to nursing home patients in need.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) had vowed to block Michele Leonhart’s nomination to lead the DEA unless the agency worked with his Aging Committee to develop guidelines providing for faster delivery of powerful painkillers, like morphine and Percocet, to nursing home patients.

Kohl’s announcement Wednesday clears the way for the Senate to confirm Leonhart, who has been the acting DEA head since 2008. Without Senate confirmation, Leonhart would have been forced to go through the nomination process again next year.

Under the Justice Department agreement, Attorney General Eric Holder will send draft legislation to Kohl in January that outlines changes to the Controlled Substances Act, which describes who is authorized to order and administer drugs.

“Attorney General [Eric] Holder assured me that he would be personally responsible for promptly seeing this matter through the review process both at the Justice Department and administration-wide,” Kohl said in a statement. “Based on our agreement, I am releasing the hold on Michele Leonhart’s nomination, and I look forward to introducing a mutually acceptable legislative fix in the opening days of the 112th Congress.  Time is of the essence for nursing home residents who need immediate pain relief.”

Painkiller use in nursing homes received higher scrutiny over the past couple of years after the DEA cracked down against pharmacies that allowed nursing home nurses to administer the drugs without a written prescription.

According to Kohl’s office, the draft legislation allows certain nurses and other licensed healthcare professionals to transmit a physician’s order for powerful Schedule II painkillers over the phone or by fax. Nursing homes, physicians and pharmacies will be required to take steps to verify order's legitimacy.

A Senate aide said it's possible Leonhart will be confirmed with other nominees later Wednesday. If confirmed, it would give the DEA its first Senate-approved leader in more than three years.

"We are working to confirm as many of the president’s nominations as possible before we leave," said a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In early October, the DEA relaxed its rules to allow nurses to call in prescriptions for certain painkillers, but not the Schedule II drugs.

Evvie Munley, senior health policy analyst for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, called the October guidelines “a small step forward.”