Trump administration tightens opioid prescriptions for feds

FILE - This June 17, 2019, file photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone. Two Ohio counties are asking a judge to find that drugmakers and distributors were not allowed to ship suspicious orders of controlled substances to pharmacies. If a judge sides with the request from Cuyahoga and Summit counties, it would clear the way for the governments to assert that drug companies ignored the regulations as a nationwide opioid crisis continued to grow. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The government’s employee health plan will tighten its rules for covering prescription opioid painkillers starting this fall, the Trump administration said Monday.

The announcement by a senior administration official was part of a White House drug policy briefing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under the media coverage rules established for the event.

The Federal Employee Health Benefits Program is the world’s largest job-based health plan, covering an estimated 9 million people, including workers, retirees and family members.

Patients dealing with intractable pain from diseases such as cancer will still be able to get opioid painkillers, but the new policy is geared to preventing over-prescribing to people who might just need the drugs for a short period of time.

Opioid painkillers prescribed following a surgery unwittingly became a gateway for some people caught up in the nation’s opioid epidemic. Unused drugs could also wind up being used by a family member or acquaintance who had become addicted.

Under the new policy, the initial prescription will be for a 7-day supply, instead of up to 30 days, the official said. Patients will be able get up to three refills of 7 days apiece. Formal re-authorization that involves consulting a clinical professional will be required every 28 days.

Administration officials said the federal government is following the lead of several states that have already restricted opioid prescriptions for their employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that overdose deaths appear to have declined last year for the first time in nearly three decades. Data show nearly 68,000 reported deaths in 2018 as compared to more than 70,000 in 2017. The latest numbers are still considered provisional, but government experts expect the final tally will end up below 69,000 deaths.

The improvement was driven by a drop in deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers. But deaths that involve fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid, are still going up. Fentanyl is an ingredient in many street drugs. It’s shipped into the country by mail from labs in China, or smuggled from Mexico.