Senators Push DEA Chief on Prescription Drugs
By Andrew Ramonas | November 17, 2021 7:01 pm

The leader of Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday urged patience as Democratic senators expressed frustration with agency actions that they said prevent the dispensation of prescription drugs.

Michele Leonhart (photo by Daniel Hoffman / Main Justice)

Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing prodded acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to address delays in the administration of pain medication to individuals in need at nursing homes. The senators wrote in an October 2009 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that enhanced efforts by the DEA to combat illicit prescription drug use have made it difficult for ailing individuals in long-term care facilities to seek quick pain relief.

Kohl met with Leonhart in May to discuss the issue, and in August, requested feedback from the DEA on draft legislation that would allow nurses at long-term care facilities to prescribe drugs like morphine.

The DEA has yet to respond to the request from Kohl. Leonhart would not set a date for the DEA’s response, saying a reply would take time. But Leonhart said she expects the DEA feedback would be “favorable” to the senators.

Kohl said Leonhart should “work a little harder” to make some headway on the proposed bill as a stipulation for her confirmation as the presidentially appointed head of the DEA. Leonhart, the acting head of the agency since November 2007, appeared before the Senate panel as part of a hearing on her nomination to be the Senate-confirmed DEA Administrator.

“It appears that the DEA is putting paperwork before pain relief,” Kohl said.

Leonhart said addressing the concerns of the senators is extremely important to her and the DEA. She said the DEA has enacted short-term solutions that attend to some of the senators’ worries.

The DEA established new policies last month that allow nurses to prescribe some medications to individuals in nursing homes. But pain relief drugs like morphine still require a doctor’s prescription.

“We need to do more and I agree with you,” Leonhart said. “This is a serious issue.”

Whitehouse also took issue with DEA’s work on electronic prescriptions. He said there needs to be “more progress” on that matter, which he said would help modernize the health care system.

The DEA in March issued an interim rule that would allow doctors to electronically prescribe controlled painkillers, but it would still force them to keep paper copies of e-prescriptions of other drugs.

Whitehouse said the rule is a “step in the right direction.” But he said more must be done.

“I believe that the urgency of getting the United States of America onto a robust and secure health information infrastructure so that we can provide Americans with the health care system of the future is a primary national goal and of real urgency,” Whitehouse said.

Leonhart said advancing electronic prescriptions would be one of her priorities if she is confirmed.

“We share your concerns,” Leonhart said. “We think that interim rule was our way of moving forward with what we believe … will help.”

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