General Practice NZ 'concerned' after Government quietly changed opioid drug access legislation

A medical professional is stunned and concerned by the Government quietly changing legislation that would allow greater access to opioid painkillers.

Opioid drugs contributed to 333 overdose deaths in New Zealand from 2017-2021, according to NZ Drug Foundation.

Chair of General Practice New Zealand Bryan Betty said the figures are "absolutely tragic" but could've been worse. 

The Government made an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations in November that authorised prescriptions for three months instead of one, with up to a month's worth doled out at a time. 

This means patients are now allowed to pick up three times as many pills as Pharmac’s current 10-day limit.

Betty told AM on Thursday the amendment, which didn't go through consultation, is a "real, real concern" because of the amount of opioids it allows a person to have possession of at one time.

"We've gone from a regime of prescribing opioids every month that is restricting the amount that a person can get to three monthly," Betty told AM co-host Ryan Bridge. 

"This change was brought in by the Ministry of Health and the Government prior to Christmas with no consultation and we only became aware of it when Pharmac notified us that they were going to consult over the changes, so this is a real, real concern."

The painkillers Kiwis have more access to are oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl, Betty said. 

"This again is a real concern because it just opens up the amount of opioid that a patient can have, especially for what we call non-cancer pain," he said. 

"That is pain that is not palliative care, that is due to just pain conditions and again, there's very little evidence that access to opioids in those situations is of benefit."

General Practice New Zealand raised concerns over the amendment and they're trying to figure out why it occurred. 

"We think it was an attempt to make everything the same across the system. We can prescribe for three months with every other medication," Betty said. 

"This was an attempt to just make that all consistent. However, because there was no consultation, the actual concerns that were in the medical sector were not raised and this just slipped under the radar before Christmas." 

Chair of General Practice New Zealand Bryan Betty.
Chair of General Practice New Zealand Bryan Betty. Photo credit: AM

The 333 overdose deaths linked to opioid drugs are "absolutely tragic" but the regulations in New Zealand stopped it from being worse. 

"One thing I would say, because of our prescribing regime - one month with ten-day pickup - I would say that we have been insulated from a much bigger problem that we have seen in the United States, that we have seen in Australia," Betty said. 

"So it is tragic, the numbers are large. However, we don't want to worsen the situation."

The Ministry of Health is now consulting on options, including a regulation u-turn.

"We want to ensure that those who need prescription opioids have reasonable access to them while maintaining appropriate controls to mitigate their risk of harm to the public," the Ministry of Health said. 

Watch the full interview with Bryan Betty in the video above.