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The Hill

March 20, 2013

Congress moves to put protections on painkiller

By Megan R. Wilson

A new bill to increase federal regulation of hydrocodone painkillers has already picked up 42 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) are leading the charge in the House, introducing the Safe Prescribing Act on Wednesday, which would move hydrocodone meds – such as Vicodin – from a Schedule III to a Schedule II drug.

The move would put them in line with other painkillers such as morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone and require the patient to present a doctor’s written prescription in order to obtain the painkiller, among other protections.

“Too many of our loved ones are dying every day from prescription drug overdoses and are abusing hydrocodone painkillers for non-medical purposes,” Buchanan said in a press release.

In 2010, two million people reported using prescription painkillers non-medically for the first time within the previous year, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the upper chamber, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are sponsoring a companion bill.

"As responsible leaders, we cannot stand by and let prescription drug abuse become one of the fastest growing epidemics in our country," Kirk said.

“Prescription drug abuse threatens families in Massachusetts and across the country with no regard for income, education, or political party. Congress needs to step up and take action to help fight the epidemic of prescription drug abuse sweeping the country,” Markey added.

There has been a 300 percent increase in painkiller prescriptions in the United States, the CDC reported. In 2008, nearly 15,000 people died from a painkiller overdose – more than cocaine and heroin combined.

Last month, Buchanan and Markey signed a letter with five senators, asking FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to reschedule hydrocodone drugs, doubling down on an expert panel at the FDA that voted 19-10 in January for the change.

The number of chronic abusers of hydrocodone in the U.S. has increased to more than 24 million since 1999, when Congress sent a petition to the agency on the issue, lawmakers said.

A March reply from the FDA indicated that because the schedule change must be initiated by legislation or a rulemaking effort by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), lawmakers shouldn’t expect quick progress.

But Buchanan and Markey are on an aggressive campaign to gain support for the bill, which was originally introduced in the last Congress, but has since been slimmed down to only focus on hydrocodone.

In a letter sent out to their colleagues, the congressmen highlight advice from Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

“When you wonder why your dentist gives you 40 hydrocodone for a toothache… that's because they're under the impression that it's not addictive as Percocet,” he said. “That's completely false."

Kolodny has been on the Hill several times to testify on the topic and endorsed the legislation.

“This legislation will correct an error made over 40 years ago when the Controlled Substances Act incorrectly classified hydrocodone combination products,” he said in a statement.

Photos here.

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