Senate tackles prescription drug abuse

The Senate Health Committee is forming a working group to tackle the rising rates of prescription drug abuse, in the face of complaints about a recently approved painkiller that many say is highly addictive and easily abused.

Senate Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Thursday announced the bipartisan Prescription Drug Abuse Working Group, and invited other lawmakers to join in their effort to crack down on abuse and misuse.

"The abuse of prescription painkillers and narcotics has grown into a bona fide public health crisis, affecting virtually every state, city, and small town in the United States," Harkin said in a statement. "Too many Americans and their families have suffered from the effects of this insidious epidemic."

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Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have criticized the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approving Zohydro, which critics say is being abused by users.

Zohydro is the first FDA-approved drug that uses pure hydrocodone to treat chronic pain. Other combination drugs mix hydrocodone with weaker, non-addictive painkillers like aspirin to balance out the effects.

The Senate working group will specifically look into prescription opioid abuse, which it says is responsible for more than 16,000 overdose deaths each year. Hydrocodone is an opioid similar to morphine or heroin.

During a recent hearing, Harkin expressed concerns that opioid-based prescriptions have spiked over the last decade to more than 200 million prescriptions last year, from about 144 million in 2002.

"Not a day goes by that we don't hear news of how prescription drug abuse is harming Americans across the nation, including Tennessee," Alexander said in a statement.

The working group will examine the extent of prescription drug abuse around the country, and explore innovative solutions that law enforcement and healthcare providers can use to address the problem. One such solution that many lawmakers have called for is abuse-deterrent features that make a prescription drug difficult to crush, so that it cannot be snorted or injected by addicts. 

The FDA approved Zohydro last October, despite warnings from the agency's own experts that it poses a danger to users.

Since then, a number of lawmakers, including Alexander, have written letters to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg requesting that she reverse the agency's decision. Some also asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversees the FDA, to go over Hamburg's head.

Still other lawmakers are working on legislation that would force the FDA to withdraw approval of Zohydro.

Last week, the company that makes Zohydro pushed back, threatening to sue Massachusetts for banning sales of the prescription drug in the state.