- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2019

The Trump administration announced new plans Monday to limit federal employees’ access to opioids, looking to lead by example in combating the painkiller epidemic.

Employees who use a federal health plan will be able to get one seven-day prescription followed by three renewals, requiring them to see a doctor if they need more than a 28-day supply. That’s less than half the current policy’s maximum time, which allows an initial 30-day prescription and a 30-day renewal.

“We’re trying to compress this process so that there’s more responsiveness from providers,” a senior administration official told reporters. He also said federal employees should not have a “blank check” to grab up pills.

The new Labor Department policy is the latest move by an administration that says it has reined in use of the addictive pain pills that have been blamed for sparking the deadly opioid crisis.

It also has slashed the number of pills that drug makers are allowed to produce, so fewer pills can be diverted to the streets, and has heavily promoted prescription “take-back” days, resulting in the collection of more than 4 million pounds of pills.

Officials said the focus is paying off. Painkiller prescription fulfillments are down 34% over the first two years of President Trump’s tenure, and pill-related deaths have plateaued.

Officials briefed reporters on their efforts as Mr. Trump looks to show he has made good on a signature domestic issue before the 2020 campaign.

Mr. Trump deemed opioid addiction to be a public health emergency in October 2017 and signed sweeping, bipartisan legislation to combat the problem a year later.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that overall drug-overdose deaths in the U.S. fell by more than 5% from 2017 to 2018, declining from 72,224 to 68,577 — the first major drop since the 1990s.

Administration officials say the scope of the problem is still unacceptable, with deadly synthetic fentanyl, which remains a significant driver of opioid-related deaths, a major concern.

Methamphetamine is also making a comeback in parts of the country, as Mexican cartels manufacture it cheaply and sell it in the U.S. at massive profit, officials said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration issued emergency regulations to make every type of fentanyl analog illegal but says it will take an act of Congress to make it permanent.

Jim Caroll, who serves as the White House “drug czar,” will travel to China soon to see if that country is living up to President Xi Jinping’s promise to Mr. Trump to make all forms of fentanyl illegal.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security seized 1.2 billion lethal doses of fentanyl destined for U.S. communities in fiscal 2018, or roughly enough to kill every American four times over.

The administration says it is pressing the U.S. Postal Service to do more at its package-processing facilities to stop the opioids from entering the country.

Congress passed a law in the fall requiring the postal service to collect advanced electronic data of all Chinese packages, and 70% of the international flow, as of the end of 2018. Quotas get more stringent over time, with 100% designated for screening by the end of 2020.

While it has improved screening, the postal service isn’t in full compliance with the law.

Only 60% of the international flow and about 85% of Chinese packages were screened as of June, Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale told Congress this month.

He said the biggest hurdle to obtaining the data is that it’s ultimately up to foreign postal operators to provide it. The postal service is sending their foreign partners monthly letters to get updates on their progress in providing advanced data, he testified.

Members of Congress said the administration could be doing more on the pill side of the effort, too.

Though the DEA reduced the production levels of prescription opioids by 47% since 2016, Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and John N. Kennedy of Louisiana said production rose so high in the preceding decades that the agency should cut more.

“While we appreciate the initial steps taken in recent years to reduce the aggregate production quotas for schedule II opioids, we remain concerned that they are still far too high,” the senators wrote.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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