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What Are DEA Numbers and What Are They Used For?

February 19, 2020

A DEA number is assigned by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to any health care provider, including physicians, optometrists, dentists, veterinarians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. This number allows these providers to write prescriptions for controlled substances; it is also a way for the DEA to track who is prescribing what.

In October 2019, a Savannah, Georgia, physician was found guilty by a jury of the unlawful dispensation of controlled substances and three counts of health care fraud. As a result, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and is understood to be one of the worst offenders in the opioid epidemic in Savannah.

The opioid epidemic is raging in many communities across the United States, and health care providers are a key component to reducing the number of overdoses, deaths, and addictions that have resulted from overprescribing controlled substances.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintains the Controlled Substance Act Database as part of an ongoing effort to carefully regulate and monitor controlled substance prescriptions. Here’s more about the history of the DEA, the importance of the DEA number, and how Verisys uses this data to protect patients and health care organizations from fraud and abuse.

The Creation of the DEA

The DEA was founded in 1973 as a part of President Nixon’s War on Drugs initiative. Before the DEA, various enforcement and intelligence agencies were primarily responsible for discovering and prosecuting drug-related crimes. The DEA was created in an effort to consolidate their work and have one primary source for investigation and prosecution.

Today, the primary mission of the DEA is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the US. Under the DEA, several campaigns such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the Red Ribbon Week campaign were championed by the DEA.

After Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 2001, all existing regulated drugs were categorized into five different categories called schedules. The CSA also provided frameworks for new drugs to be added and created the registration system for practitioners that is in use today.

Why DEA numbers are important

DEA numbers allow providers to write prescriptions for controlled substances including opioids, morphine, and steroids. This number allows the DEA to track who is prescribing controlled substances and in what quantities to carefully regulate and monitor them.

DEA numbers are not random and follow a very specific format — 2 letters, 6 numbers, and 1 check digit — that can tell you who is prescribing medication, and it acts as a verification of the validity of the number. Here’s the formula:

  • The first letter is a code identifying the type of registrant. This includes hospitals, physicians or practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, and others.
  • The second letter is the first letter of the prescriber’s last name.
  • Six digits follow the two letters.
  • The seventh digit is the last digit in a formula that is as follows:
  1. Add digits 1, 3, 5
  2. Add digits 2, 4, 6, then multiply by 2
  3. Add the numbers from step 1 and 2
  4. The last digit in this formula is the check digit number

These days a computer does most of the work in verifying the DEA number when a prescription goes to a pharmacy. However, understanding the makeup of a DEA number is important since it is unique and an important part of combating opioid abuse.

DEA numbers and the CSA database are used to credential practitioners as well as to certify a practitioner’s CSA status. They are extremely useful to HMOs, clinics, health insurance, pharmaceutical and medical services firms, and others who must verify that a practitioner is registered to handle controlled substances.

Do all providers need a DEA number?

Without a DEA number, a provider cannot prescribe controlled substances to patients; however, not all prescriptions are controlled substances. DEA numbers are unique to each provider, as described above, and they are only given to providers that have undergone the proper certification and testing, as specified by state and federal law.

While a provider could still practice without a DEA number when they’re not prescribing controlled substances, working without it is difficult. Many insurance companies and pharmacies use a DEA number as provider identification, and it has become standard. But a DEA number is not the only identifier for providers.

Differences between DEA and NPI numbers

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), “The National Provider Identifier (NPI) was adopted and became effective May 23, 2007, as the standard unique health identifier for health care providers to carry out a requirement in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for the adoption of such a standard.”

One of the obvious differences between an NPI and a DEA number is the agency from which they are issued: the CMS for NPI, and the DEA for a DEA number.

NPIs are significantly different from DEA numbers and do not act as a replacement. An NPI is an identifier for a provider performing any number of transactions beyond just prescribing controlled substances. So, while not all providers with an NPI will qualify for a DEA number, all providers with a DEA number will have an NPI.

How Verisys identifies fraud and abuse of controlled substances to protect patients

When it comes to identifying fraud and abuse of controlled substances, Verisys’ data platform goes beyond binary results on search queries. Searches query a sophisticated data platform containing hundreds of millions of records dating back to the 1990s. This historical and real-time aggregated database matches records to existing data such as aliases, addresses, work history, license history and status, NPI, DEA, OFAC, and thousands more primary sources nationwide in order to pull up a complete and longitudinal view of a provider or entity.

Initial searches and continual monitoring are one way that we work with our partners to prevent controlled substance fraud and abuse that put patients in danger as well as risk to reputation and liability.

Heather Lynn Gillman Written by Heather Lynn Gillman
Director of Healthcare Communications
Problem Solver. Designer. Wine Maker. Writer.
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