Electronic Prescribing of Controlled Substances

Posted by: Alok Prasad

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What is Electronic Prescribing of Controlled Substances (EPCS)?

Electronic Prescribing for Controlled Substances (EPCS) refers to the process of writing and transmitting prescription orders for drugs that are regulated by the government (such as opioids) using an electronic system instead of a paper prescription. This helps to improve patient safety by reducing errors and preventing prescription fraud, as well as streamlining the prescribing process. To use EPCS, healthcare providers must meet certain security and authentication requirements, and must use software that has been certified to meet federal standards.

History of EPCS

The U.S. government took measures in 2010 to address the crisis with greater controls around prescription opioids and the expansion of treatment and recovery options. Electronic prescribing of controlled substances (EPCS) began as a proposal by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to curtail the diversion of controlled substances. EPCS allowed physicians to prescribe controlled substances through a secure and certified electronic system. The regulations also permitted pharmacies to receive, dispense, and archive these electronic prescriptions.  They also provided pharmacies, hospitals, and practitioners with the ability to use modern technology for controlled substance prescriptions while maintaining the closed system of controls on controlled substances.

Provider's Responsibilities with Controlled Substances

DEA Title 21 Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR) puts the responsibility of ensuring the safety of EPCS on the provider. To be in a position to prescribe controlled substances, the provider must register with the DEA and get a DEA number. Title 21 also requires prescribers to use an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system or prescribing technology. Prescribers must also maintain sole possession of any two-factor authentication tokens and cannot share passwords with anyone.

EHR Vendor Responsibilities with Controlled Substances

DEA Title 21 requires that the EMR or any other technology used for prescribing controlled substances be certified by a third party auditor or certification body. Being adequately certified ensures proper creating, signing and refilling of controlled substance prescriptions. The technology must allow prescribers to access identity verification as well as two-factor authentication (2FA), more rubust audit trails and strict auditing procedures. The technology must link the provider to a minimum of one DEA registration number and ensure only they are signing prescriptions. Part 1311 of Title 21, Requirements for Electronic Orders and Prescriptions, goes into the specifics of these requirements in detail.

SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act

In 2018, more than 67 thousand people died from prescription drug overdoses. The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act was signed into law in October of 2018 as a response to the overdose crisis. The SUPPORT Act was designed to educate healthcare workforce, standardize the delivery of addictive medications, and expand access to care while providing coordinated and comprehensive addiction treatment for patients.

EPCS Federal Mandate

In December 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a revision to the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act that mandated Electronic Prescribing for Controlled Substances (EPCS) covered under Medicare Part D. The law took effect on January 1, 2021; however, CMS has delayed enforcement of penalties until January 1, 2022.

Under this final rule, the establishment of penalties to a future proposed rule have been deferred, with a comment period. Such penalties will not be enforced until January 1, 2022.

State EPCS requirements

In addition to the federal mandate, many states have passed similar legislation. New York became the first state to mandate EPCS when its groundbreaking Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing (I-STOP) Act took effect in 2016. Since then, many additional states have passed similar legislation, and many other legislatures are considering proposed EPCS mandates.


How to get started with EPCS?

When getting started with EPCS, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) provides two pathways to regulatory compliance for medical practices. The path that you take depends on how your EHR is setup. Practitioners who are using an EHR system registered to an individual DEA number will usually fit into the 'Small and Solo Group Practices' pathway.

Practitioners who are registered to an institutional or shared DEA number are typically part of a Health System Affiliated Practice pathway.

Smaller and solo practices where practitioners are registered to an individual DEA number must take the following four required steps to be able to transmit electronic prescriptions for controlled substances legally.

1. EHR Software Update

Find out if the EHR software version in use by your practice has already been certified and approved for EPCS.

2. ID Proofing

Proof of ID can be done in-person or online through companies that work directly with your EHR. You may need to answer a security question, and email all scanned copies of government-issued documents alongside your photo and medical license for online ID proofing. Often, a bank statement or electric bill will also be required to confirm your practice address.

3. Two Factor Authentication

This is a double-level process to ensure that only you can sign and send the pharmacy's controlled substance prescriptions. There are various options available such as mobile phone authentication, smart cards, fob tokens, USB thumb drives, and biometrics such as fingerprint scanners.

4. Setting Software Access

  1. In this final step, you will need two separate people to set secure access controls for your EHR EPCS software. One of these people must be a DEA registrant who has been ID-verified and has their two-factor authentication measure in place.
  2. The other person must be someone who can confirm your identity, such as a member of your practice, but they do not need to be an employee of your practice.

For practitioners who are registered to a shared DEA number in the Health System Affiliated Practices, there also four required steps that must be taken to allow you to transmit electronic prescriptions for controlled substances legally.

Benefits of EPCS

The benefits of Electronic Prescribing for Controlled Substances (EPCS) include:

  1. Improved patient safety: EPCS helps reduce the risk of medication errors by ensuring that prescriptions are accurate and up-to-date. Studies have shown that electronic prescribing can reduce medication errors by 50-85% compared to traditional paper-based methods. This improved accuracy can lead to better patient outcomes and reduced healthcare costs associated with adverse events.

  2. Prevent prescription fraud: EPCS provides real-time monitoring of prescription data, making it more difficult for individuals to fraudulently obtain controlled substances. This helps to reduce the incidence of prescription drug abuse and diversion, which has been a growing public health concern in recent years.

  3. Increased efficiency: EPCS eliminates the need for paper prescriptions, reducing the time and costs associated with manual processes. In a study conducted by the American Medical Association, providers using electronic prescribing reported a 70% reduction in administrative time compared to those using paper-based methods. This increased efficiency can allow healthcare providers to see more patients and improve patient care.

  4. Enhanced patient care: EPCS provides healthcare providers with access to a patient's complete medication history, including allergies, current medications, and previous prescriptions. This information can help providers make informed decisions about medication management and treatment plans, leading to improved patient care and outcomes.

  5. Better data tracking: EPCS provides comprehensive data tracking and reporting, allowing healthcare providers to monitor prescription trends and identify potential issues. This information can be used to identify patients at risk of abuse or overdose, improve medication utilization, and optimize patient care.

  6. Compliance with regulations: EPCS helps healthcare providers comply with federal regulations related to controlled substance prescribing, reducing the risk of penalties. This is especially important given the recent emphasis on reducing prescription drug abuse and improving patient safety. By using EPCS, healthcare providers can ensure that they are adhering to regulations and protecting the health and well-being of their patients.


What Is a Controlled Substance?

Prescription drugs are those drugs that are prescribed by a provider for a specific person and bought at a pharmacy. These are regulated by FDA. Prescription drugs are classified into two categories:

  1. Non-controlled prescription drugs
  2. Controlled prescription drugs

Non-controlled drugs are prescribed to treat medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, Controlled Drugs Prescriptionand bacterial infections. Such prescriptions are not subject to some of the same limitations as controlled substance prescriptions.

Controlled substances are drugs or medications (whether prescription or illicit) considered to have the highest misuse and use disorder potential and therefore have the strictest regulation and prescription requirements on a federal and state levels. They are regulated by the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) which was enacted as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. To prescribe controlled substance medication, a clinician must have a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) license; to fill a prescription, a pharmacist must also have a controlled substance license.

Controlled Substance Act (CSA) divides all controlled substances into five categories called schedules. The schedules range from Schedule I (highest level of potential for addiction and use disorder) to Schedule V (lowest potential for addiction/use disorder).

Schedule I:

These drugs have no recognized medical use in the United States. They are not safe to use even within a medical environment. They possess the highest potential for use disorder and misuse. Examples of Schedule I drugs include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide, etc.

Schedule II:

These drugs carry a high risk of potential abuse. They also may cause physical or psychological dependence when used. Schedule II drugs are now permitted to be electronically transmitted through Electronic Prescribing of Controlled Substances (or EPCS) and have the tightest regulations when compared to other prescription drugs.

Schedule III:

There is less risk of abuse in Schedule III than in the higher tiers. These drugs carry low to moderate risks of physical dependence. Drugs in this category may cause physical dependence but more commonly lead to psychological dependence. Schedule III drugs can be prescribed verbally over the phone, with a paper prescription, or via EPCS.

Schedule IV:

Schedule IV drugs have have an even lower misuse potential than I, II, or III. They have a limited risk of physical or psychological dependence. Schedule IV drugs can be prescribed verbally over the phone, with a paper prescription, or via EPCS.

Schedule V:

Schedule V drugs are the least likely of the controlled substances to be misused. They result in very limited physical or psychological dependence. Pharmacies are responsible for monitoring these drugs in terms of quantities accessed.


The SUPPORT Act, 2018

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2018 more than 67 thousand people died from prescription drug overdoses. The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act was signed into law in October of 2018 as a response to the overdose crisis. The SUPPORT Act was designed to educate healthcare workforce, standardize the delivery of addictive medications, and expand access to care while providing coordinated and comprehensive addiction treatment for patients.


Topics: EHR Software, Provider/Physician, Consultant, Electronic Prescribing

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