Pennsylvania moves to expand limits on opioid prescriptions

One bill in the package imposes a 7-day limit on opioid painkiller prescriptions for all adults.

This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP Photo)

This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP Photo)

Legislation to further clamp down on powerful painkiller prescriptions in Pennsylvania passed the state Senate on Wednesday as part of a broader package to fight opioid addiction, nearly three years after lawmakers launched their first broad effort to curb a growing epidemic.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has said the hard-hit state is making progress in fighting overdoses, citing preliminary data from the state coroners association that overdose deaths declined about 20% to around 4,200 in 2018.

The Senate wrapped up voting on the new slate of bills on Wednesday, sending them to the House of Representatives.

One bill in the package imposes a seven-day limit on opioid painkiller prescriptions for all adults, expanding seven-day limits that lawmakers approved in 2016 on prescriptions for minors and emergency room patients.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The bill maintains exceptions for the judgment of the prescribing doctor that a longer prescription is necessary to stabilize the patient’s condition, as well as for cancer, hospice care and chronic pain. It also added one exception, for a major surgical procedure.

It passed unanimously after Democrats tried, unsuccessfully, to amend in limits on the new surgery exception to limit prescriptions to 14 days and add wording to define a major surgical procedure.

House Republicans are open to the bill and it is likely to find bipartisan support in the chamber, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler’s office said Wednesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said hospital groups dropped their opposition to the broader prescription limits for adult patients after being able to lower prescription rates and use alternatives, such as over-the-counter painkillers.

“They’re finding out there’s other things they can do,” Yaw said.

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania said it is neutral on the bill. However, the Pennsylvania Medical Society opposes the bill, saying that it “takes the decision-making out of the hands of physicians.”

“Medicine is not an exact science, and physicians need some degree of autonomy to do what is right for their patients,” the organization said in a statement.

It also pointed to an April statement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that warned that its guidelines do not support “abrupt tapering or sudden discontinuation of opioids.” Such a practice can result in severe opioid withdrawal symptoms and send some patients in search of another source of opioids, it said.

In 2016, Pennsylvania was among the first states to put limits on opioid prescriptions. Since then, states have moved aggressively to limit opioid prescriptions, and the National Conference of State Legislatures says more than 30 now have limits of some sort.

Another bill in the package, which passed the Senate unanimously on Monday, creates a new second-degree felony that allows prosecutors to charge someone under state law for providing an illegal drug, such as heroin, that inflicts a serious injury on the user.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal