The federal Food and Drug Administration is recommending tighter restrictions on hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller that is one of the most-prescribed, and most-abused, substances in West Virginia.
In a statement released Thursday evening, Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said the agency has been evaluating hydrocodone and other opiate-based drugs for several years.
Woodcock said the drugs, when prescribed correctly, allow patients to manage chronic pain and improve the quality of their lives. The agency has become increasingly concerned about the abuse of opioids, however.
The FDA now plans to submit a formal recommendation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in early December, recommending hydrocodone be reclassified as a Schedule II drug.
"This will begin a process that will lead to a final decision by the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) on the appropriate scheduling of these products," Woodcock said.
Hydrocodone-acetaminophen is better known by its various brand names: Lortab, Lorcet, Dolorex and Vicodin.
It currently is a Schedule III drug, which means doctors can phone in prescriptions for patients. Prescriptions for Schedule III drugs also can be refilled without another doctor's visit.
If the drug were made a Schedule II substance like its more popular cousin oxycodone, a patient would have to get an appointment with his or her doctor to obtain a prescription and generally would not be eligible for refills.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. released his own statement shortly after the announcement, saying he is "extremely grateful" the FDA is moving to reclassify the drug.
"Today was a tremendous step forward in fighting the prescription drug abuse epidemic that has ravaged West Virginia and our country," he said. "The agency has just saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
Manchin earlier this month called for an investigation of an FDA panel, charged with crafting policies regulating prescription painkillers. A report in the Washington Post revealed large pharmaceutical companies had given the group as much as $25,000 to gain access to closed-door meetings.
The panel examined regulations and testing of prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, helping shape the FDA's policy for the medication.
At the time, Manchin said he hoped the investigation would lead to a reclassification for hydrocodone.