DEA Proposes Rule to Expand Partial Filling of Schedule II Prescriptions; Will the Benefit be Cost-Effective?

December 11, 2020By Michael S. Heesters

Pharmacists, in general, can partially fill any prescription for non-controlled and most Schedule III-V controlled substances.  Partial filling has several benefits, including reducing waste and potentially lowering the cost of a prescription.  However, Schedule II (C-II) controlled drugs are an exception to general rule allowing partial fills, as federal law and regulations only permit partially filling C-II prescriptions in certain instances.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), passed in July 2016, amended the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) to authorize additional partial filling of Schedule II controlled substances.  Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-198, 130 Stat. 695 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 42 U.S.C. and 21 U.S.C.).  DEA has now proposed a rule to amend its regulations in accordance with CARA that will expand the situations where a partial filling of a C-II prescription is permitted.  21 C.F.R. Part 1306.

The DEA published this notice of proposed rule on December 4, 2020 and there is a 60-day comment period thereafter.  Partial Filling of Prescriptions for Schedule II Controlled Substances, 85 Fed. Reg. 78,282 (proposed Dec. 4, 2020).

Background of Partial Filling of C-II Prescriptions

As a general rule, a pharmacist is not permitted to partially fill a C-II prescription for a patient.  However, DEA regulations currently provide three exceptions for partial filling of C-II prescriptions:

  • If a pharmacist is unable to supply the full quantity of a C-II prescription. In these instances, the pharmacist must make a notation of the quantity supplied on the prescription itself.  The remaining portion of the prescription may be filled within 72 hours of the partial filling.  However, no further quantity may be supplied beyond 72 hours without a new prescription and the pharmacist must notify the prescriber.  21 C.F.R. § 1306.13(a).
  • If a C-II prescription is written for a patient in a Long-Term Care Facility (LTCF). The pharmacist must record on the prescription whether the patient is an “LTCF patient.”  21 C.F.R. § 1306.13(b).
  • If a C-II prescription is written for a patient with a medical diagnosis documenting a terminal illness. Both the pharmacist and the prescribing practitioner have a corresponding responsibility to assure that the controlled substance is for a terminally ill patient.  The pharmacist must record on the prescription that the patient is “terminally ill.”  21 C.F.R. § 1306.13(b).

For each partial filling for a LTCF or terminally ill patient, the dispensing pharmacist must record the date of the partial filling, quantity dispensed, remaining quantity authorized to be dispensed and the identification of the dispensing pharmacist.  The total quantity of C-II controlled substances dispensed in all partial fillings must not exceed the total quantity prescribed.  C-II prescriptions for patients in a LTCF or terminally ill patients are valid for 60 days from the issue date.  21 C.F.R. § 1306.13(b).

Proposed C-II Partial Fill Rule

DEA is now proposing a new regulation to add a fourth scenario where a pharmacist can partially fill a C-II prescription as authorized under CARA.

The proposed rule would allow a pharmacist to partially fill a C-II prescription if requested by the patient or prescriber.  However, to be lawful under CARA, the partial filling must not be prohibited by State law; must be written and filled in accordance with the CSA, DEA regulations and State law; and the total quantity dispensed in all partial fillings cannot exceed the total quantity prescribed.  85 Fed. Reg. at 78,285.  Moreover, after the first partial fill, any additional partial fill(s) must occur within 30 days after the date on which the prescription is written (unless the prescription is issued as an emergency oral prescription, in which case the remaining portion must be filled no later than 72 hours after it was issued).  Id.

We also note that DEA has proposed additional regulations related to this new partial fill rule not required under the CARA amendment to the CSA.  Specifically, prescribers must communicate their intent for a partial filling by writing such terms on the face of the prescription at the time that it is completed (or, in the case of an emergency oral prescription, directly stating to the pharmacist when such prescription is communicated to the pharmacist).  Additionally, if a patient is requesting the partial fill, then the patient must be the one to request a partial fill.  However, the patient must request the partial fill, and not merely the person dropping off or picking up the prescription.  The DEA specifically noted that this restriction is required by CARA and thus is an exception to the general authority for a pharmacy to deliver a prescription to the “ultimate user.”  85 Fed. Reg. at 78,284.  Under the CSA, the ultimate user can be “a person who has lawfully obtained, and who possesses, a controlled substance for his own use or for the use of a member of his household or for an animal owned by him or by a member of his household.”  21 U.S.C. § 802(27).  The patient can request the partial fill either in-person, telephonically or in a written note.  For example, the patient can write and sign a note to be delivered to the pharmacist by another person.  85 Fed. Reg. at 78,284.

The pharmacist, in the event of a prescriber-requested partial fill, must record the amount partially filled, the date, name/initials of the filling pharmacist and all other information required by 21 C.F.R. § 1306.22(c) for schedule III and IV prescription refills.  In the event of a patient-requested partial fill, the pharmacist, in addition to the information above, must also record the following statement:  “patient requested partial fill on [date such request was made].”  Id.  Note, however, if both the prescriber and patient request a partial fill, the pharmacist cannot dispense a partial quantity greater than authorized by the prescriber.

The DEA notes several potential benefits for this proposed rule, including lower costs for patients, reduction of unused controlled medication and reduction of the potential for addiction, overdose and diversion.

It also important to note that the pharmacist is not absolved of their “corresponding responsibility” to verify the legitimacy of the prescription — including any partial filling request by a patient or prescriber.  See 21 C.F.R. § 1306.04(a) (“The responsibility for the proper prescribing and dispensing of controlled substances is upon the prescribing practitioner, but a corresponding responsibility rests with the pharmacist who fills the prescription.”) (emphasis added).  For example, pharmacists cannot partially fill a C-II if the prescription quantity exceeds any state-mandated controlled drug quantity limits.  In such a case, the pharmacist must exercise his or her corresponding responsibility and decline to fill, or partially fill under this proposed rule, the entire C-II prescription because it would be invalid pursuant to state law.


The DEA’s proposed C-II partial fill rule comports with the CARA amendment to the CSA.  We agree that it has the potential to reduce the amount of unused C-II medication and the risk of diversion and abuse.  However, we question whether this will result in significant cost savings.  We understand that most patients receiving a C-II prescription pay a copay and do not pay out-of-pocket for the full cost of the drug.  The drug copay does not necessarily decrease based upon small changes in drug quantity.  Therefore, it is currently unclear whether prescription insurance plans will lower a copay if a C-II prescription is only partially filled.  If not, then a patient may ultimately pay multiple copays and more money out-of-pocket then they would otherwise.  Indeed, DEA has recognized this issue and has specifically requested comments from industry regarding whether copays will be reduced if C-II prescriptions are partially dispensed.