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A prescription for saving lives

When a Rowan County doctor and seven others were charged last week with fraudulently obtaining up to 25,000 hydrocodone pills, it came as no shock to Sean Hamel.

Hamel was the lead researcher on a state report released in April that found that prescription drug abuse is skyrocketing in North Carolina.

Deaths from unintentional poisoning – mostly prescription drug abuse – have jumped nearly 300 percent over the past decade, according to Hamel’s report. From 1999 to 2012, deaths from the most addictive prescription drugs spiked 400 percent. Today, more North Carolinians die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin, cocaine and alcohol overdoses combined, and about the same number die from it as do in traffic accidents.

There are societal costs, too. For every death, 32 people are admitted to emergency rooms for abuse and 130 become chemically dependent on painkillers. Nationally, prescription drug abuse costs insurers more than $72 billion a year, driving premiums higher for everyone.

In the Rowan case, China Grove doctor Orrin Walker and his wife, Abby, are accused of conspiring with six others (including five educators) to illegally obtain 200 prescriptions of hydrocodone, a powerful and addictive narcotic painkiller. Most of the prescription drugs involved in overdose deaths originate with a prescription written by a doctor.

The analysis – from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division – found several flaws with the way North Carolina monitors and tries to prevent this tragic situation. Its recommendations for improving the system now sit in a legislative committee, stalled while lawmakers negotiate over teacher pay and Medicaid spending.

Hamel and his colleagues found five areas in which the state fails to monitor and prevent drug abuse as well as it could. Among them: The state lacks adequate guidelines and education for prescribers. The statewide electronic database that tracks prescription drug abuse isn’t being used effectively. The state’s Medicaid “lock-in” program, which requires certain Medicaid recipients to get all their prescriptions from one doctor and one pharmacy, has been dormant for a year. Finally, the state lacks a holistic approach to the problem because it has no one entity that takes responsibility for the problem.

Sens. Fletcher Hartsell and Ben Clark have introduced legislation (S 749) that addresses these shortcomings. If the legislature leaves town without passing it, it is giving its tacit blessing to prescription drug abuse – and the deaths that will surely result.

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