The Third Cut Is the Deepest: DEA’s Continued Slashing Of Annual Quotas Lacks A Clear Rationale

August 21, 2018By John A. Gilbert & Larry K. Houck

In an effort to address, in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ words, “the worst drug crisis in American history,” the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), are for the third straight year proposing to reduce the quantity of Schedule II opioid pain medications that can be manufactured. DOJ, Press Release, Justice Department, DEA Propose Significant Opioid Manufacturing Reduction in 2019 (Aug. 16, 2018). For 2019, in addition to reducing the Aggregate Production Quotas (“APQs”) of oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl, DOJ/DEA also proposes to further reduce the quantities of morphine, hydromorphone and oxymorphone. Proposed Aggregate Production Quotas for Schedule I and II Controlled Substances and Assessment of Annual Needs for the List I Chemicals Ephedrine, Pseudoephedrine, and Phenylpropanolamine for 2019, 83 Fed. Reg. 42,164, 42,168 (Aug. 20, 2018).

We continue to be troubled by the paucity of scientific and medical support for this three-year trend that has resulted in a dramatic decrease in quotas for much needed pain medicine. Continuing to generally blame the opioid crisis for such reductions is in our opinion short-sighted and pre-supposes that simply reducing the amount of available inventory will reduce abuse and diversion. Moreover, we do not believe the DEA or DOJ is showing appropriate concern for legitimate patients and the impact on medical care.

The DEA must establish APQs on an annual basis which limit the total amount of a certain drug that can be manufactured in a given year. Moreover, each manufacturer must apply for an individual manufacturing quota and the sum of these quotas may not exceed the APQ.

The proposed APQ reductions in 2019 of the six opioids equate to between seven percent (morphine for sale) and 15 percent (oxymorphone for sale) compared to 2018 levels. DEA reduced the APQs for these opioids minimally in 2018, but had reduced them in 2017 by at least 27 percent of 2016 levels, with hydrocodone, fentanyl, morphine and oxymorphone levels reduced by at least 40 percent. The 2017 APQ reductions eliminated a 25 percent buffer that DEA had added to APQs annually between 2013 and 2016 to guard against shortages. See DEA, Press Release, DEA Reduces Amount of Opioid Controlled Substances To Be Manufactured in 2017 (Oct. 4, 2016).

These huge cuts in opioid production will eventually lead to shortages for legitimate medical use. The Attorney General, in discussing the proposed reductions, further observed that “President Trump has set the ambitious goal of reducing opioid prescription rates by one-third in three years.” DOJ, Press Release, Justice Department, DEA Propose Significant Opioid Manufacturing Reduction in 2019 (Aug. 16, 2018). We understand the rationale in proposing to reduce the quantity of highly abused opioids that will be manufactured next year and recognize that state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) opioid prescribing guidelines have led practitioners to prescribe these medications in fewer quantities. However, DOJ/DEA should not make the reductions simply to meet an arbitrary benchmark; the reductions must be based upon meaningful data.

We also note that these reductions come on the heels of DEA recently modifying the criteria it would use to establish quotas. Controlled Substances Quotas, 83 Fed. Reg. 32,784 (July 16, 2018). That rule, which became effective on August 15, 2018, adds two additional factors for consideration:

  • The extent of any diversion of the controlled substance; and
  • Relevant information obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services, including FDA, the CDC, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “and relevant information obtained from the states.”

However, this DEA rulemaking also fails to provide sufficient rationale or guidance on how DEA will determine what the “extent of any diversion” means. Also, the involvement of the states in the DEA quota process also raises more concern about the impact on DEA’s timely establishing of such quotas. For example, if one state raises objections about the quota for a drug, it appears that DEA may then need to hold hearings on the quota which could again result in delays in granting of individual manufacturing quotas.

In short, reducing the APQs in 2019 may lead to less opioid medications available for potential diversion from legitimate channels to misuse and abuse in 2019, but will also result in less supply that is available for the millions of patients who legitimately need them. Simply reducing the quantity of opioids manufactured does not in itself ensure that only legitimate patients, rather than those who would misuse and abuse the medications, will have access to them. There is the risk with reduced APQs that supply will not meet legitimate needs if doctors and other practitioners are not diligent about issuing prescriptions only to the patients who need them.

Written comments on the proposed APQs must be postmarked on or before September 19, 2018.