The Current State of Opioid Prescribing and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Action Against Physicians: An Analysis of DEA Database 2004-2017

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Pain Physician


BACKGROUND: Prescribing opioids has become a challenge. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have become more involved, culminating in the March 2016 release of the CDC's "Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain."

OBJECTIVES: Given the new guidelines, we wanted to see if there have been any changes in the numbers, demographics, physician risk factors, charges, and sanctions involving the DEA against physicians who prescribe opioids, when compared to a previous DEA database review from 1998 to 2006.

STUDY DESIGN: This study involved an analysis of the DEA database from 2004 to 2017.

SETTING: The review was conducted at the Henry Ford Health System Division of Pain Medicine.

METHOD: After institutional review board approval at Henry Ford Health System, an analysis of the DEA database of criminal prosecutions of physician registrants from 2004-2017 was performed. The database was reviewed for demographic information such as age, gender, type of degree (doctor of medicine [MD] or doctor of osteopathic medicine [DO]), years of practice, state, charges, and outcome of prosecution (probation, sentencing, and length of sentencing). An internet-based search was performed on each registrant to obtain demographic data on specialty, years of practice, type of medical school (US vs foreign), board certification, and type of employment (private vs employed).

RESULTS: Between 2004 and 2017, Pain Medicine (PM) had the highest percentage of in-specialty action at 0.11% (n = 5). There was an average of 18 prosecutions per year vs 14 in the previous review. Demographic risk factors for prosecution demonstrated the significance of the type of degree (MD vs. DO), gender, type of employment (private vs. employed), and board certification status for rates of prosecution. Having a DO degree and being male were associated with significantly higher risk as well as being in private practice and not having board certification (P < .001). In terms of type of criminal charges as a percent of cases, possession with intent to distribute (n = 90) was most prevalent, representing 52.3% of charges, with new charges being prescribing without medical purpose outside the usual course of practice (n = 71) representing 41.3% of charges. Comparison of US graduates (MD/DO) vs. foreign graduates showed higher rates of DEA action for foreign graduates but this was of borderline significance (P = .072).

LIMITATIONS: State-by-state comparisons could not be made. Specialty type was sometimes self-reported, and information on all opioid prosecutions could not be obtained. The previous study by Goldenbaum et al included data beyond DEA prosecution, so direct comparisons may be limited.

CONCLUSION: The overall risk of DEA action as a percentage of total physicians is small but not insignificant. The overall rates of DEA prosecution have increased. New risk factors include type of degree (DO vs. MD) and being in private practice with a subtle trend toward foreign graduates at higher risk. With the trend toward less prescribing by previously high-risk specialties such as Family Medicine, there has been an increase in the relative risk of DEA action for specialties treating patients with pain such as PM, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, neurology, and neurosurgery bearing the brunt of prosecutions. New, more subtle charges have been added involving interpretation of the medical purpose of opioids and standard of care for their use.

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