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FDA recommends tighter checks on painkiller

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Hydrocodone, a powerful and widely abused drug found in prescription painkillers, will likely become more difficult to get after the Food and Drug Administration recommended tightening regulations on the drug.

On Thursday, the FDA officially recommended that hydrocodone be reclassified as a schedule II narcotic, the strictest classification for drugs that have an accepted medical use. The strongest prescription painkillers, drugs like OxyContin and methadone, are already classified as schedule II.

The FDA's recommendation will be passed along to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is then expected to pass it along to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA, which has lobbied for the change for years, will then begin the process of reclassifying the drug.

The change means prescriptions for drugs that contain hydrocodone, like Vicodin and Lortab, will have to be smaller and will not be able to be refilled as many times without a patient going back to see a doctor.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has pushed for the reclassification for years.

Manchin-sponsored legislation that would have reclassified hydrocodone passed the Senate in 2012, but died in the House of Representatives. Manchin reintroduced similar legislation this year, but it again has stalled.

"Today was a tremendous step forward in fighting the prescription drug abuse epidemic that has ravaged West Virginia and our country," Manchin said in a written statement Thursday. "The agency has just saved hundreds of thousands of lives."

In 2008, West Virginia had the nation's second highest rate of deaths from prescription painkillers, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The diversion of prescription pain medication for illegal purposes is one of the biggest problems we face in West Virginia," Col. C.R. Smithers of the West Virginia State Police said in a written statement. "It is my sincere belief that this measure will decrease the amount of hydrocodone available to those who do not possess a legitimate purpose."

Recent studies have highlighted the prescription drug epidemic in West Virginia.

A study from the Trust for America's Health found that prescription drug deaths in the state increased more than 600 percent between 1999 and 2010.

A recent study from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy found West Virginians on Medicare get far more prescriptions filled than almost anywhere else in the country.

And a study from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that some of West Virginia's veterans' hospitals lead the nation in the amount of prescription painkillers they prescribe.

A diverse array of lobbyists, from chain pharmacies and prescription drug makers to the American Cancer Society, have long argued against tightening restrictions on hydrocodone, saying it would make it more difficult for people in pain to get medication.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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