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For Immediate Release
May 7, 2012

Grassley, Whitehouse Ask GAO to Study DEA Role in Drug Shortages, Potential Fixes

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island are asking the Government Accountability Office to study to what extent the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s attempts to curb dangerous controlled substances inadvertently contribute to shortages of prescription medications in the practice of medicine, including emergency medical work.

“The Drug Enforcement Administration has to walk a fine line between managing dangerous controlled substances like painkillers and making sure there are adequate supplies for legitimate medicine,” Grassley said.  “More and more, emergency medical technicians report shortages of medicines they need in the field.  A non-partisan study by a neutral entity is needed to ensure that the proper balance is struck in the best interests of everyone involved.”

“Drug shortages are a worsening problem for physicians and patients.  I've heard from Rhode Islanders worried about disruptions in their care if a drug is in short supply.  Patients need access to the right treatment at the right time,” said Whitehouse, “and we need to balance the DEA’s mission to fight prescription drug abuse against patients’ need for proper care.”

Prescription drug abuse, especially involving pain medicine, is a skyrocketing problem.  Just last week, a new study showed that the number of pregnant women addicted to opiate drugs and the number of babies born with withdrawal symptoms have soared in the last 10 years.   At the same time, prescription drug shortages of several kinds of drugs needed for medical treatment are an ongoing problem.  The Senate version of legislation re-authorizing the Prescription Drug User Fees Act addresses drug shortage concerns related to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  However, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s role in drug manufacturing is separate and falls under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, where Grassley is ranking member and Whitehouse is a member.  

The Drug Enforcement Administration sets quotas for drug companies that manufacture controlled substances and in effect limits how much product they are allowed to make.  Since the drug shortage crisis developed, controlled substances are frequently on the FDA drug shortage list.  Grassley and Whitehouse want the Government Accountability Office to study whether the Drug Enforcement Administration is inadvertently contributing to shortages of drugs needed in the practice of medicine, including emergency medicine.  Emergency medical technicians around the country are reporting shortages of drugs including tranquilizers used to limit seizures and pain medicine for severe pain.  

The text of the Grassley-Whitehouse letter to GAO is available here.