Painkillers will be tougher to get this fall

A pharmacist measures out OxyContin.

Starting this fall, it will be more difficult to get commonly prescribed painkillers, such as Vicodin.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has announced a new rule that reclassifies drugs containing hydrocodone. That means most consumers will be forced to get their prescription in person — no more over-the-phone refills. 

Dr. Jeffrey Samet at Boston University says abuse of prescription painkillers is a devastating trend.

"It’s linked to addiction and transition to heroin use and people are dying from that," he says. "So, we need to do something."

The question is whether reclassifying the drug is too crude an approach.

The public health risk is clear: the CDC reports more than 16,500 people died from opioid painkiller overdoses in 2010. Mark Fleury, with the American Cancer Society’s lobbying arm, says when it’s harder to get pain pills because of addiction, it’s harder for people that really need pain pills to get them.

“A post-operative cancer patient who has some breakthrough pain from a surgery for example, you are in pain in the middle of the night and you really don’t want to get up and drive to a doctor’s office to get a prescription,” he says.

There is data that shows an increased risk for suicide when someone lives in chronic pain, Fleury says and regulators should use patient usage patterns to determine how easy it is to obtain pain pills instead.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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