by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
When most people think of the war on drugs, they picture the DEA gunning it out with brutal cartels in places like Mexico and Columbia. But for residents of New York, the war on drugs took a more legislative twist to the fight. And against some of the most profitable drug cartels in the world – prescription drug manufacturers.
On Monday, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law legislation that would make it harder for addicts and dealers to “doctor shop” for prescription drugs. Doctor shopping is the practice of obtaining prescriptions for more drugs than one needs by visiting several doctors and getting separate prescriptions from each one.
The Internet System for Tracking Overprescribing (I-STOP) bill sets up a network that tracks and monitors painkillers and other narcotic drugs that are prescribed to patients and sends red flags to doctors, hospitals and pharmacies whenever a patient buys more prescription drugs than they need. The new system requires more information on prescription activity to be added to the database and is to be kept in “real time.” Drugs that are prone to abuse, such as ones derived from opium, will be especially watched and other synthetic painkiller drugs like Tamadrol will be put in the same category The bill also sets in place a method of disposal for unused drugs through the Department of Health.
“Too many families in New York State have suffered the loss of a teenager or youth as a result of prescription drug abuse,” Cuomo said. “With this new law, New York State is tackling this problem head-on and giving law enforcement and medical professionals the tools they need to stop abuse before it occurs and crack down on offenders.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman first proposed I-STOP last year. The bill was endorsed by a bipartisan coalition of law enforcement, state and local legislators and medical professionals. However, the Medical Society of the Stare of New York, which represents roughly 30,000 doctors, opposed it. Not surprisingly, the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York also opposed the bill. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, executive Director for the Pharmacists Society said, “The problem [with the current system] is that pharmacists don’t have access to the database. I-STOP would do that, but we don’t want it mandated. It’s not necessary for pharmacists to do the same thing that prescribers already do. It really gums up the flow at pharmacies, which are already understaffed and overburdened.”
The doctors and pharmacies also oppose the punitive measures the bill has included in it. Overprescribing can lead to fines up to $500 dollars for first time offenders and up to thousands more on subsequent offenses. They also point to statistics that show that places that have enacted similar legislation have an increased number of heroin overdoses when prescription drug addicts cannot get their drugs because their supply has been “gummed up.” Drug abuse councilors have also raised concerns that the bill doesn’t do enough in the area of treatment for addicts.
Still, gumming up “the flow” of prescription drugs is precisely what New York legislators hope I-STOP will accomplish. In Staten Island alone, there were 31 deaths attributed to prescription drug use in 2010 and 28 deaths in 2009 – making prescription drug fatalities more common that car crashes or murder. In New York City last year there were over 4.3 million prescriptions filled for hydrochodone.
Nationally, there were 86,000 hospital emergency room visits last year by people who had taken hydrochodone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 15,000 people die each year from overdoses of prescription painkillers. The CDC reported that in 2010, 1 in 20 people in the United States over the age of 11 used prescription drug recreationally. Roughly 8 percent of high school students report that they use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.
Prescription painkillers have also become big business for doctors, pharmacies and, mostly, pharmaceutical companies. Sales of painkillers quadrupled between the years 1999 and 2010. While profits soared for the pharmaceutical industry over the past decade, so did the abuse problem for the nation. Between 1999 and 2008, overdose death rates and admissions to drug abuse centers increased dramatically.
New York legislators, who helped pass the I-STOP bill, see their legislation as a first step in turning around what they believe is an epidemic of prescription drug abuse in New York and across the nation. They hope that the bill will serve as a model for other states to adopt. “Governor Cuomo’s signature on this landmark legislation means that the State of New York has now taken the lead in turning back the prescription drug epidemic which has ravaged families from one end of New York to the other,” said state senator Andrew Lanza, who represents Staten Island. “This historic legislation will hopefully serve as the model for other states in order to address what has become a national epidemic.”