Database would help Penna. address prescription epidemic
One of the nation's biggest drug-abuse problems is rooted in conventional medicine rather than underground trafficking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription narcotics abuse is an epidemic.
The problem in Pennsylvania is severe, with 15.1 drug overdose deaths for every 100,000 residents, according to the CDC's morbidity and mortality report for 2011. It's the ninth-highest rate among the states.
The severity is also borne out in the Dec. 14 drug bust in Northumberland County. Of the 65 defendants from the greater Shamokin-Mount Carmel area, a majority were charged with illegal use or possession of prescription drugs.
Although state law recognizes the problem in several ways - requiring physical exams prior to the issuance of original prescriptions and regulating the time between when prescriptions may be refilled, for example - the Pennsylvania Medical Society has asked the Legislature to arm doctors with a key weapon to thwart people who move from doctor to doctor in search of fresh prescriptions for powerful narcotics.
Unlike many states, Pennsylvania does not have a comprehensive database of patients who have been prescribed drugs such as oxycodone.
Such databases thwart not only doctor-shoppers but the occasional unscrupulous doctor who would prescribe powerful drugs for people who don't need them for valid medical reasons. Recently, for example, a Montgomery County doctor was arrested for allegedly writing hundreds of unneeded prescriptions for oxycodone. In another case, two pharmacists in southeast Pennsylvania were charged in a prescription drug distribution scheme. A comprehensive patient database would help to reduce those kinds of crimes.
The medical society's "Pills for Ills, Not Thrills" campaign includes an emphasis on screening methods to ensure that patients seeking drugs actually are in pain.
But the database is the key piece. Its records would be subject to the same confidentiality laws that cover other medical records. And police would need a warrant for a specific suspect's information to gain aspect to the database.
Drug abuse is one of society's most intractable problems, which most often results in after-the-fact enforcement or worse, overdoses. This is an opportunity for the Legislature to act aggressively for actual prevention.