Inspector General says DEA was slow to respond to opioid crisis

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was slow to respond to the rising opioid epidemic, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said in a report Tuesday.

The OIG examined the DEA's regulatory and enforcement efforts to control opioids. It found that as the number of opioid-related deaths drastically increased between 2013 and 2017, the DEA significantly reduced using one of its key enforcement tools, the ability to suspend manufacturers, distributors, and other registrants to keep drugs from being diverted.

The report found the agency issued a peak of 59 immediate suspension orders in fiscal year 2011, down to five in fiscal year 2015. Part of the reason for the decline was that so many pill manufacturers had already been shut down, the report said.  The report also found the DEA raised the annual quota of the amount of oxycodone that can be manufactured by nearly 400 percent from 2002 to 2013. In court filings, drug makers have said that they continued to increase production as the opioid crisis deepened because the DEA said they should.

Opioids, a class of drugs that includes powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin and illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, have been linked to more than 400,000 deaths in the United States since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report notes the agency told the U.S. Government Accountability office previously that it was difficult to set a limit that provides for legitimate medical needs and limits abuse and diversion. Since 2014, the oxycodone quota has been reduced, with the biggest cuts of 25 percent announced in 2016. The cuts have come as prescriptions have declined and fentanyl and other synthetic street drugs have become the biggest killers among opioids, reports the Associated Press.  

In the report, weaknesses were identified in the DEA’s registration process, which allowed manufacturers, distributors, and healthcare providers to immediately reapply after their registration was revoked or surrendered. The inspector general also called for the federal government to do something some states have done already and require electronic rather than handwritten prescriptions for all controlled substances, a method that has been shown to cut down on fraud.

The DEA agreed with most of the report’s recommendations. In a response included with the report, the DEA said the decline in those suspensions was also due to a decrease in opioid prescriptions and an increase in prescribers, pharmacists, and others surrendering their registrations. In a statement, the DEA also noted that it has taken steps to reduce the diversion of prescription drugs to the black market but agreed that more changes need to be made.