Documentation is Key for Federal Employees Taking Prescription Opioids

Federal employees who take prescription opioids are facing tougher scrutiny. Here is important information to remember for mandatory drug testing.

Federal employees subject to mandatory drug testing – those who work in national security, public health or public safety occupations – or those subject to random testing – will have to check their medicine cabinets for any prescriptions that include opioids, since they are now on the list of drugs for which the government is testing.

Beginning October 1, oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone and hydromorphone are included in the Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs using Urine (UrMG or Mandatory Guidelines) because of their addictive qualities. Federal employees who test positive for one of these four drugs will need to produce a doctor’s prescription to prove that they aren’t taking these opioids illegally. Those that do show proof of a prescription will not have their positive test reported to their agencies. A positive test could lead to removal from federal service.

Why are these drugs in the Mandatory Guidelines, then? After all, doctors have been prescribing oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone and hydromorphone for years. They have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And furthermore, any drug – prescription or over the counter – has the potential for becoming addictive.

The answer is twofold. There is a push, led by President Donald Trump, to deal with what is being called an opioid crisis in the United States. More attention is being paid to opioid addiction by federal, state and local authorities, especially in light of the fact that there were more than 50,000 deaths due to opioid overdose in the U.S. last year.

The other aspect is which federal employees are being monitored for opioid usage. Those who work in the national security, public health and public safety sectors are interacting with the public on a regular basis or are dealing with complex national security issues and classified information.  If an employee tests positive for any drugs contained in the Mandatory Guidelines, that person may be considered to be a national security or safety risk – a risk the federal government does not want to take.

This is why it is important for federal employees subject to mandatory drug testing (even if it is random testing) to have their documentation in place if they are knowingly taking an opioid. This way, the federal government won’t assume the worst if oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone or hydromorphone show up in the test results. Taking photos of the pill bottle is an approved method of documenting the prescription. Photos should show the following:

  • The employee’s name
  • Prescription number
  • Name of the drug
  • The prescribing physician
  • Date the prescription was filled
  • Number of pills in the prescription
  • Number of refills
  • Name, address and contact information of the pharmacy

Photos of the pill bottle should be sent by text, e-mail or fax to the Medical Reviewing Officer (MRO) once a positive test result is detected. Additionally, a printout from the pharmacy and/or a signed statement from the prescribing physician can aid in verifying the prescription. The MRO will verify any and all contact with the prescribing physician.

Documentation alone may not be enough for some MROs. They are authorized to also consider if the opioid was used during the time when it was prescribed by the physician. If it doesn’t appear to the MRO that the opioid was used during the time it was prescribed, it will be considered to be a positive test. It is then up to the MRO to decide whether to report the positive test to the employee’s agency.

If there is any possibility a federal employee may test positive for oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone or hydromorphone, federal employees in the mandatory drug testing program should consider getting out in front of the issue and have documentation ready for MROs should it become necessary. A positive drug test without proper documentation can lead to one losing a security clearance, or removal from federal service.

About the Author

Mathew B. Tully is a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. He concentrates his practice on representing federal government employees and military personnel. To schedule a meeting with one of the firm’s federal employment law attorneys call (202) 787-1900. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.