Rural patients could suffer if the DEA restricts telehealth prescribing

The DEA wants to rein in online prescribing rules that were relaxed over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prescription bottles
Opponents argue that health care providers, not a law enforcement agency, should decide which patients need in-person appointments. Deposit Photos

This article originally appeared in KFF Health News.

Federal regulators want most patients to see a health care provider in person before receiving prescriptions for potentially addictive medicines through telehealth—something that hasn’t been required in more than three years.

During the covid-19 public health emergency, the Drug Enforcement Administration allowed doctors and other health care providers to prescribe controlled medicine during telehealth appointments without examining the patient in person. The emergency declaration ended May 13, and in February, the agency proposed new rules that would require providers to see patients at least once in person before prescribing many of those drugs during telehealth visits.

Controlled medications include many stimulants, sedatives, opioid painkillers, and anabolic steroids.

Regulators said they decided to extend the current regulations—which don’t require an in-person appointment — until November 11 after receiving more than 38,000 comments on the proposed changes, a record amount of feedback. They also said patients who receive controlled medications from prescribers they’ve never met in person will have until November 11, 2024, to come into compliance with the agency’s future rules.

The public comments discuss the potential effects on a variety of patients, including people being treated for mental health disorders, opioid addiction, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Thousands of commenters also mentioned possible impacts on rural patients.

Opponents wrote that health care providers, not a law enforcement agency, should decide which patients need in-person appointments. They said the rules would make it difficult for some patients to receive care.

Other commenters called for exemptions for specific medications and conditions.

Supporters wrote that the proposal would balance the goals of increasing access to health care and helping prevent medication misuse.

Zola Coogan, 85, lives in Washington, Maine, a town of about 1,600 residents northeast of Portland. Coogan has volunteered with hospice patients and said it’s important for very sick and terminally ill people in rural areas to have access to opioids to ease their pain. But she said it can be hard to see a doctor in person if they lack transportation or are too debilitated to travel.

Coogan said she supports the DEA’s proposed rules because of a provision that could help patients who can’t travel to meet their telehealth prescriber. Instead, they could visit a local health care provider, who then could write a special referral to the telehealth prescriber. But she said accessing controlled medications would still be difficult for some rural residents.

“It could end up being a very sticky wicket” for some patients to access care, she said. “It’s not going to be easy, but it sounds like it’s doable.”

Some health care providers may hesitate to offer those referrals, said Stefan Kertesz, a physician and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham whose expertise includes addiction treatment. Kertesz said the proposed referral process is confusing and would require burdensome record-keeping.

Ateev Mehrotra, a physician and Harvard professor who has studied telehealth in rural areas, said different controlled drugs come with different risks. But overall, he finds the proposed rules too restrictive. He’s worried people who started receiving telehealth prescriptions during the pandemic would be cut off from medicine that helps them.

Mehrotra said he hasn’t seen clear evidence that every patient needs an in-person appointment before receiving controlled medicine through telehealth. He said it’s also not clear whether providers are less likely to write inappropriate prescriptions after in-person appointments than after telehealth ones.

Mehrotra described the proposed rules as “a situation where there’s not a clear benefit, but there are substantial harms for at least some patients,” including many in rural areas.

Beverly Jordan, a family practice doctor in Alabama and a member of the state medical board, supports the proposed rule, as well as a new Alabama law that requires annual in-person appointments for patients who receive controlled medications. Jordan prescribes such medications, including to rural patients who travel to her clinic in the small city of Enterprise.

“I think that once-a-year hurdle is probably not too big for anybody to be able to overcome, and is really a good part of patient safety,” Jordan said.

Jordan said it’s important for health care practitioners to physically examine patients to see if the exam matches how the patients describe their symptoms and whether they need any other kind of treatment.

Jordan said that, at the beginning of the pandemic, she couldn’t even view most telehealth patients on her computer. Three-fourths of her appointments were over the phone, because many rural patients have poor internet service that doesn’t support online video.

The proposed federal rules also have a special allowance for buprenorphine, which is used to treat opioid use disorder, and for most categories of non-narcotic controlled substances, such as testosterone, ketamine, and Xanax.

Providers could prescribe 30 days’ worth of these medications after telehealth appointments before requiring patients to have an in-person appointment to extend the prescription. Tribal health care practitioners would be exempt from the proposed regulations, as would Department of Veterans Affairs providers in emergency situations.

Many people who work in health care were surprised by the proposed rules, Kertesz said. He said they expected the DEA to let prescribers apply for special permission to provide controlled medicine without in-person appointments. Congress ordered the agency to create such a program in 2008, but it has not done so.

Agency officials said they considered creating a version of that program for rural patients but decided against it.

Denise Holiman disagrees with the proposed regulations. Holiman, who lives on a farm outside Centralia, Missouri, used to experience postmenopausal symptoms, including forgetfulness and insomnia. The 50-year-old now feels back to normal after being prescribed estrogen and testosterone by a Florida-based telehealth provider. Holiman said she doesn’t think she should have to go see her telehealth provider in person to maintain her prescriptions.

“I would have to get on a plane to go to Florida. I’m not going to do that,” she said. “If the government forces me to do that, that’s wrong.”

Holiman said her primary care doctor doesn’t prescribe injectable hormones and that she shouldn’t have to find another in-person prescriber to make a referral to her Florida provider.

Holiman is one of thousands of patients who shared their opinions with the DEA. The agency also received comments from advocacy, health care, and professional groups, such as the American Medical Association.

The physicians’ organization said the in-person rule should be eliminated for most categories of controlled medication. Even telehealth prescriptions for drugs with a higher risk of misuse, such as Adderall and oxycodone, should be exempt when medically necessary, the group said.

Some states already have laws that are stricter than the DEA’s proposed rules. Amelia Burgess said Alabama’s annual exam requirement, which went into effect last summer, burdened some patients. The Minnesota doctor works at Bicycle Health, a telehealth company that prescribes buprenorphine.

Burgess said hundreds of the company’s patients in Alabama couldn’t switch to in-state prescribers because many weren’t taking new patients, were too far away, or were more expensive than the telehealth service. So Burgess and her co-workers flew to Alabama and set up a clinic at a hotel in Birmingham. About 250 patients showed up, with some rural patients driving from five hours away.

Critics of the federal proposal are lobbying for exemptions for medications that can be difficult to obtain due to a lack of specialists in rural areas.

Many of the public comments focus on the importance of telehealth-based buprenorphine treatment in rural areas, including in jails and prisons.

Rural areas also have shortages of mental health providers who can prescribe controlled substances for anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Patients across the country who use opioids for chronic pain have trouble finding prescribers.

It also can be difficult to find rural providers who prescribe testosterone, a controlled drug often taken by transgender men and people with various medical conditions, such as menopause. Controlled medications are also used to treat seizures, sleep disorders, and other conditions.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

Subscribe to KFF Health News’ free Morning Briefing.