Physicians found new flexibility in prescribing controlled substances via telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now that the public health emergency is ending, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has proposed new rules for prescribers it says could preserve some of those flexibilities “with appropriate safeguards.”
Among other thing, the new rules – if finalized – would allow physicians and health care professionals to prescribe, without a face-to-face visit, a 30-day supply of Schedule III and Schedule IV non-narcotic controlled drugs, after which an in-person follow up would be needed for any refill. This class of drugs is the least likely to result in drug abuse, according to DEA. The proposal also would allow for prescribing a 30-day supply of buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder without an in-person evaluation or referral.
“Improved access to mental health and substance use disorder services through expanded telemedicine flexibilities will save lives,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in the announcement. “We still have millions of Americans, particularly those living in rural communities, who face difficulties accessing a doctor or health care provider in-person.”
The agency emphasized that the rules do not affect telehealth services that do not involve controlled substance prescriptions. The Texas Medical Association is reviewing how the proposed regulations could interact with other federal and state regulations, says Shannon Vogel, TMA’s associate vice president of health information technology.
DEA has released summaries for both health care professionals and patients explaining how the proposed rules would affect prescription practices.
“This is a very good thing that they’re doing and a necessary thing” for access to care, said Mesquite pain management specialist C.M. Schade, MD, a former president of the Texas Pain Society.
Before the pandemic, physicians were limited in their telemedicine prescribing ability by the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008, he says. The act requires physicians to conduct at least one in-person medical evaluation of the patient before prescribing a controlled substance by means of the “internet,” which is defined to include telehealth.
“COVID did great things for telehealth, and one of them was breaking through the Ryan Haight Act,” Dr. Schade said.
Some policymakers and behavioral health advocates have expressed concern, however, that patients who need continuous medication therapy may have challenges obtaining an in-person visit within 30 days.
The rules were proposed Feb. 24 and public comments are due March 31. The agency has no set timeline for publishing the rules, though it is likely that will come before the PHE ends May 11.
Physicians with questions and comments about the DEA changes or relevant state regulations can contact Ms. Vogel.