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DEA increases restrictions on prescription painkillers

WASHINGTON — The federal government tightened the prescribing for the most common form of painkiller in the country Thursday, the final step in a policy shift that has been years in the making.

The stricter rule for hydrocodone, the most widely prescribed painkiller in the United States and which includes drugs such as Vicodin, is one of the most far-reaching efforts to stop the growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse, which takes the lives of more than 20,000 Americans every year, according to federal data. The rule puts hydrocodone in a more restricted category and requires sweeping changes.

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Doctors will no longer be able to call in prescriptions, and patients will not be able to get refills but will have to get a new prescription.

The drug will have to be kept in special vaults in pharmacies. The Drug Enforcement Administration published the rule Thursday; it will take effect in 45 days.

“This is substantial,” said Dr. Nathaniel Katz, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. “It’s a sign of a shift toward more cautious opioid prescribing.”

Abuse of painkillers claims the lives of more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, and the number who die from prescription drug overdoses has more than tripled since the late 1990s.

Prescription drugs account for the majority of all US drug overdose deaths. Drug-induced deaths have outstripped those from traffic accidents.

Still, the change is sure to draw strong criticism from some pain management specialists, who contend that the rule creates unfair obstacles for patients in chronic pain.

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