US Government Watchdog Faults DEA for Slow Response to Opioid Crisis

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure at The Drug Enforcement Administration

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure at The Drug Enforcement Administration

The US has been facing an opioid epidemic in recent years, seeing addiction levels and overdose deaths skyrocket as a result of the legal sale of pharmaceutical drugs.

"DEA appreciates the OIG's assessment of the programs involved in the report and the opportunity to discuss improvements made to increase the regulatory and enforcement efforts to control the diversion of opioids", the spokesperson said.

The Justice Department's inspector general says the Drug Enforcement Administration was "slow to respond" as America grappled with a rising opioid epidemic.

DEA officials have said their estimates are based on data provided by the companies, and the real problem was the failure of some of those companies to prevent diversion of the pills, as required by federal law and regulations, according to reporting by the Washington Post.

The report on the DEA's response to the increase in opioid abuse in the United States said that, from 1999 to 2013, opioid-related deaths grew by about 8%. But then the number started dropping, all the way down to five in fiscal 2015.

Horowitz's report said that the DEA, which is part of the Justice Department, had recently taken steps to address the opioid epidemic, including increasing its intelligence sharing with local law enforcement agencies and launching "community outreach efforts" to raise awareness of the dangers of opioids.

Horowitz also criticised the DEA for not sufficiently capturing enough information or appropriately conducting background checks on drugmakers, distributors, doctors, or prescribers to identify trends or suspicious order requests, which could have "contributed in its overall slow response to the opioid crisis".

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The report notes the agency had told the US Government Accountability office previously that it's hard to set a limit that provides for legitimate medical needs and limits abuse and diversion.

Companies like drug distributor McKesson Corp and Oxicontin maker Purdue Pharma, which have been accused of enabling opioid abuse in many pending lawsuits, have long argued that they abided by the DEA's production quotas and that it was not their place to second-guess the agency's determinations.

Since the cuts, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of these opioid prescriptions, down more than 30 percent from January 2017 to August 2019, according to a DEA spokesperson.

Horowitz also found that when licenses to handle narcotics are stripped from drug manufacturers, distributors and health care practitioners, they can reapply for that authority as soon as one day later.

The inspector general also called for the federal government to do something some states have done already: Require electronic rather than handwritten prescriptions for all controlled substances, saying that's a way to cut down on fraud.

The DEA falls under the Justice Department's purview.

The report identified other areas in which the DEA could have been more efficient in regulating the crisis.

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