E-prescribing of controlled drugs could be allowed soon

The Drug Enforcement Administration will soon propose a rule change to allow doctors to prescribe painkillers and other potentially dangerous drugs electronically.

The rule would lift the ban at least partially, said DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite, adding, “We’re close to publication at this point.”

Under current rules, doctors cannot legally use electronic systems to send prescriptions for controlled substances to pharmacies. The rules require a paper prescription with the doctor’s signature.

Experts say the limitation has hampered the adoption of e-prescribing technology because it’s inconvenient for doctors to use two different means of writing prescriptions. Controlled substances account for about 20 percent of prescriptions.

Waite declined to say when the proposed rule would be published or which of the several categories of controlled substances it would cover.

Under the federal rule-making process, agencies must publish proposed rules in the Federal Register and give the public time to comment on them. After reviewing those comments, agencies typically publish a final version of the rule.

DEA has been under pressure to change its e-prescribing rules for some time. In December 2007, 19 senators signed a letter to the Justice Department, the DEA’s parent agency, urging officials to address their security concerns rather than continue postponing progress on adopting the technology.

DEA officials have said they are concerned that e-prescribing systems are not secure and could be used to obtain drugs illegally. Experts say prescription drugs are becoming more widely abused than illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana.

Health information technology advocates say e-prescribing could encourage more doctors to use electronic health record systems, which promise to improve care and reduce costs.

Pending legislation in the Senate to avert cuts in Medicare reimbursements would require doctors to use e-prescribing by 2011 or face a reduction in their Medicare fees. Those provisions would cut Medicare outlays by $2 billion or $2.5 billion, depending on which version of the legislation is enacted, said Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office.

About the Author

Nancy Ferris is senior editor of Government Health IT.

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