Optometrists in New Jersey are seeking to push through a bill to reinstate their privileges to prescribe hydrocodone, an opioid pain medication. 

Optometrists lost this privilege in October 2014, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rescheduled products containing hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II, meaning that optometrists are no longer authorized to prescribe such products under state law. 

“This change affects the ability of New Jersey optometrists to provide the best possible care to patients with ocular injuries and serious eye infections,” says Howard Cooper, executive director of the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians (NJSOP).

New Jersey optometrists had obtained such prescription rights in 2004, when their state legislature passed a bill that would allow them to prescribe drugs in the Schedule III, IV and V categories. 

The latest bill, S-2578/A-3922, does not expand ODs’ scope of practice but it would restore their ability to prescribe hydrocodone, not other medications. The bill argues that optometrists have for many years prescribed products containing hydrocodone without incident.

NJSOP has been working collaboratively with state legislators to address this change in schedule, Mr. Cooper says. The collaboration seems to be making some in-roads on the bill. In late December 2014, S-2578 passed the Senate unanimously. The NJSOP is working to have the Assembly version heard in committee when the legislature returns in January, Mr. Cooper adds.

“Our interests are to ensure that New Jersey optometrists provide the best possible care to their patients and, when appropriate, treat patients with ocular injuries and serious eye infections with the proper medications,” he says.

The Medical Society of New Jersey (MSNJ) has taken the position that it’s appropriate to restrict the prescription of opioids in light of ongoing state efforts to prevent and treat chemical dependence on this class of drugs. 

In a letter from MSNJ to the members of the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee, the society cites that the legislature prudently limited ODs’ prescription rights when the original expanded scope of practice bill was passed in 2004 because of the “high potential for abuse, which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence” on Schedule II dangerous substances. 

On the federal level, the American Optometric Association says it fought against the rescheduling of hydrocodone drugs. 

But despite the best efforts of the AOA and other organizations, the DEA moved forward with the decision. 

Since hydrocodone’s move from a Schedule III to a Schedule II drug, the AOA has worked with individual states to amend the law, according to the AOA.

Several other states—Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma and Utah—have since enacted similar legislation authorizing optometrists licensed in those states to continue prescribing pharmaceutical agents containing hydrocodone as they did prior to federal rescheduling.

Stay tuned as the New Jersey legislature takes up the bill again this month.