Manchin wants DEA to restrict access to painkiller

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is asking the Drug Enforcement Agency to restrict who may prescribe a powerful painkiller that he said is leading to thousands of deaths each year.

Manchin has criticized the Food and Drug Administration for approving prescriptions of drugs that use hydrocodone as a painkiller, and is investigating whether the drug was approved under a pay-to-play deal.

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“Prescription drug abuse is ravaging my great state of West Virginia and our nation,” Manchin (D-W.Va.) wrote in a letter to the FDA. “Last year alone, almost 17,000 Americans died from prescription drug overdoses, and West Virginia had the highest per capita rate of overdose in the nation.”

Manchin says he understands concerns re-classifying drugs that contain hydrocodone in combination with other products could be a hurdle for patients who legitimately need them and urged the DEA to keep specific protections for patients already on the drug including allowing 90-day supplies to be filled incrementally and emergency refilling options.

Manchin argued that three-fourths of the annual deaths were due to narcotic pain medications such as hydrocodone.

Last October, the FDA proposed tighter restrictions on who can prescribe hydrocodone, which is often combined with acetaminophen. The FDA also proposed rules to make it harder to get refills.

Manchin said those changes could make it tougher for patients who legitimately need the painkiller. He urged the DEA to keep specific protections for patients already on the drug, including allowing 90-day supplies to be filled incrementally and emergency refilling options.

The issue of abuse of painkillers such as hydrocodone has been a growing issue in Congress.

During a hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fl.), said the topic struck “close to home” as she found out Monday a close friend had died from an apparent suicide after struggling with a painkiller addiction. 

She asked Joseph Rannazzisi, a deputy assistant administrator with the Drug Enforcement Agency, whether the agency is concerned with the FDA’s approval of Zohydro ER. The FDA said patients in sever pain needed access to that drug, bu the approval has come under heavy criticism from lawmakers, state attorneys generals and consumer advocacy groups for its abuse potential.

Rannazzisi said the potential harm of Zohydro was similar to the oxycontin crisis the DEA faced a few decades ago. He noted that oxycotin abuse began in Appalachia and spread out. “We believe we are going to see the pattern repeating again,” he added.

While the FDA has come under severe criticism from Congressional leaders and Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has repeatedly been grilled by lawmakers for approving Zohydro ER, the agency was not represented during Tuesday’s hearing.