DEA Says It Doesn't 'Regulate Practice of Medicine' Amid Patient Backlash to Proposed Opioid Prescription Cuts

After hundreds of chronic pain patients begged the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reconsider its proposed cuts to opioid production, the agency told Newsweek it's not responsible for their inability to get prescriptions.

If the DEA adopts the cuts, they would reduce production of some of the most commonly prescribed opioids in the United States for the fourth year in a row, drastically cutting fentanyl and oxymorphone, by 31 percent and 55 percent, respectively, as well as hydrocodone (19 percent), hydromorphone (25 percent) and oxycodone (9 percent).

These cuts should have no bearing on the decisions made by caregivers and their "legitimate pain patients," according to the DEA.

It's possible patients are getting caught in the crossfire from a flurry of recent federal policies aimed at culling illegal abuse of the drugs, but it's not clear which policy, if any, is at fault for their reported lack of access.

Millions of Americans Addicted
Tablets of oxycodone from a prescription. A recent DEA proposal would reduce production of some of the most commonly prescribed opioids in the United States for the fourth year in a row. Eric Baradat/Getty images

In proposing the aggregate production quota, the DEA looks at the total amount of substances needed to meet the country's medical, scientific, industrial and export needs for the year, including dispensed prescriptions, the DEA told Newsweek in a statement. That means the agency's production limits should match, not control, demand.

The DEA "does not regulate the practice of medicine. We do not get between a doctor and his or her patient," a DEA spokesperson said. "We also want legitimate pain patients, their families and caregivers to know that DEA does not seek to limit or take away their vital prescriptions."

The cuts over the past few years are an attempt to change course after the DEA allowed drugmakers to ramp up opioid production between 2003 and 2013, the same period when more than 140,000 people perished from overdoses in the United States.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the surgeon general have implemented their own agenda to combat the opioid epidemic, issuing strict guidelines for doctors prescribing the drugs in 2016. On October 10, the Trump administration told physicians to use more caution in applying the guidelines, following widespread reports that people were cut off their prescriptions or even turned away, according to The New York Times.

It's possible the guidelines, or the general stigma now associated with prescription painkillers, have led to the tapering off of supply reported by many chronic pain patients to the DEA. One patient, a stroke survivor, said he took prescription opioids without problems until 2017, when he said federal regulations made the drugs too hard to obtain. Since then, medical cannabis has helped but became less effective when his condition deteriorated. Now, he can't travel or leave his home much because of the pain.

In 2018, an investigation by former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill exposed financial ties between some of the world's biggest producers of painkillers and third-party advocacy groups. Purdue Pharma, Mylan, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and other major drugmakers donated more than $10 million to patient advocacy groups like the National Pain Foundation, the American Geriatrics Society and the American Chronic Pain Association.