updated 6/19/2008 7:00:03 PM ET 2008-06-19T23:00:03

Government regulators said Thursday they are preparing to allow highly addictive medications, including powerful painkillers, to be prescribed online, a goal long-sought by health insurers and large employers.

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Under current government rules, doctors are required to write out by hand prescriptions for controlled substances, which include attention-deficit disorder drugs like Shire Pharmaceuticals’ Adderall and painkillers like Cephalon Inc.’s Fentora.

The concern is that patients are more likely to abuse these treatments, and their prescriptions should be monitored more closely.

The Drug Enforcement Agency will soon publish a proposal that would allow doctors to prescribe such drugs electronically, according to agency spokeswoman Rogene Waite. The agency will take comments on the proposal before reworking it and establishing a final rule.

Waite declined to discuss which individual drug classes would be affected by the change, noting the rule is not yet public.

Insurers and large employers like Wal-Mart have all lobbied to allow electronic prescribing of the controlled drugs. They argue that online prescriptions are an easy way to avoid deadly medication errors and reduce health care costs.

By paving the way for electronic prescribing of widely used controlled substances, experts expect that more doctors will be willing to embrace the technology.

Improving the nation’s health information technology has become a rallying cry in Washington and on the campaign trail in recent years, but with few concrete results. Analysts say electronic prescribing may be able to break that trend thanks to its broad appeal within the Bush administration, Democrats in Congress and the private sector.

Congress is expected to vote this month on a Medicare bill that will include incentives and penalties to encourage doctors to prescribe electronically.

Generic drugmakers like Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc. and prescribing software makers like Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc. are among the companies that have thrown their support behind the effort.

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