FDA Addresses Epidemic Levels of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

The Food and Drug Administration announced on April 16, 2013 that it is taking two steps to address the “epidemic levels” of prescription painkiller addiction in the U.S. First, it announced that it will not approve generic versions of the painkiller OxyContin. In addition, the FDA approved updated labeling for OxyContin extended-release tablets to describe the product’s abuse-deterrent properties. These physical and chemical properties make it more difficult to crush, break, or dissolve the tablets, and are expected to make abuse by injection or snorting more difficult.

OxyContin is a time-release form of the drug oxycodone, a synthetic opiate. Many employers do not realize that their drug test panels typically do not include synthetic opiates. A “standard” 5-panel tests for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and PCP. The opiates tested for in a standard drug test panel generally include heroin, morphine and codeine, but not synthetic opiates such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone or hydromorphone (among others). Employers who wish to test for potential abuse of prescription painkillers should speak with their drug testing vendors to request an “extended opiates” panel or “synthetic opiates” panel. Of course, employers should have all positive drug test results reviewed by a Medical Review Officer (“MRO”) (a licensed physician with expertise in analyzing drug test results) to ensure that they do not take adverse employment actions based on lawful prescription drug use. A MRO discusses the positive drug test result with an applicant or employee to determine whether the applicant or employee is using a prescription drug legitimately. The MRO may request a copy of the prescription and may request to speak with the prescribing physician. If the MRO is satisfied that the use of the prescription drug is legitimate, he will verify the result to the employer as a negative. If the MRO is not satisfied that the use of the prescription drug is legitimate, he will verify the result to the employer as a positive. This process ensures that employers do not take discriminatory actions against applicants or employees who lawfully use prescription medications.