With abuse of prescription drugs continuing to result in crime, overdoses and death, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman on Wednesday detailed the extent of the problem statewide as he pushes for legislation to help combat what many view as a growing crisis.
Schneiderman’s 42-page report documents the year-to-year increase in the number of hydrocodone and oxycodone prescriptions being written in New York State, as well as prescription drug-related addiction and death.
The report also highlights some of the more horrific prescription drug-related crimes that have recently occurred, including the death of an off-duty federal agent shot to death while trying to thwart a New Year’s Eve day robbery at a Long Island pharmacy. The agent was at the pharmacy to pick up his father’s cancer medication.
Schneiderman’s review of prescription drug abuse found that:
• There were enough prescription painkillers prescribed in the United States in 2010 to medicate every American adult round-the-clock for a month. In New York State, the number of prescriptions for all narcotic painkillers increased from 16.6 million in 2007 to 22.4 million in 2010.
• The number of prescriptions issued in the state for hydrocodone increased by 16.7 percent from 2007 to 2010. The number of oxycodone prescriptions during that period increased by 82 percent. Both drugs are opioid painkillers, with oxycodone being much stronger than hydroco-
• Hospital admissions on Long Island for prescription drug addiction increased by 57 percent in Nassau County and by 40 percent in Suffolk County from 2007 to 2010.
• The problem is in small, rural communities as well as urban centers. More people are being admitted to hospitals in Clinton and Franklin counties, in the North Country, for prescription narcotics abuse than for cocaine or heroin.
• In New York City, 6 percent of the special narcotics prosecutor’s caseload involved prescription drug cases in 2007, compared with 15 percent in 2010. That office also reported that the black market prescription drug trade is becoming increasingly violent.
Schneiderman’s report also refers to the prescription drug problem in Western New York, citing many of the statistics and anecdotes included in “Rx for Danger,” a series that The Buffalo News published last spring.
The investigative series found that Western New York is a hot spot for some of the most abused opioid painkillers — fentanyl, hydrocodone and oxycodone — and that the abuse has led to crime, addiction and death.
Addicts and dealers, the series found, often get the drugs from friends and family members, but also steal them from pharmacies or persuade doctors to write prescriptions for which the patients have no medical need. Several doctors, according to the series, are part of the illegal marketplace.
Schneiderman’s report confirms, and updates, much of the information contained in The News series.
The series, according to Schneiderman, was the impetus for legislation he introduced last year to address prescription drug abuse.
In his legislation, which Schneiderman hopes to get enacted in the upcoming legislative session, he is pushing for upgrades in the state’s system for monitoring prescription drugs.
“New York’s current prescription monitoring program requires pharmacists to report controlled substances they dispense at least once every four days. There is no tracking of prescriptions written, and there is no mechanism whatsoever for pharmacists to ensure that a prescription presented is valid,” Schneiderman’s report states.
The legislation that Schneiderman has introduced would:
• Set up a system for tracking when prescriptions for controlled substances are written and dispensed. The system would be online and in real time.
• Require physicians to review a patient’s controlled-substance prescription history prior to prescribing additional drugs.
• Require physicians to report when prescriptions are issued, and require pharmacists to report when the drugs are dispensed.
• Require pharmacists to review the system to confirm the legitimacy of a prescription prior to dispensing the drugs.
The Schneiderman plan is attracting support from law enforcement, as well as from families that have suffered when their children became addicted to prescription drugs.
“Overall, I think it is something that can work,” said Suzanne
E. Crotty of Colden, a parent advocate whose son, Zach, died from a prescription drug overdose. “It needs to be out there as soon as possible.”
“Attorney General Schneiderman’s legislation gives law enforcement the tools necessary to protect the public from the growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse,” said Daniel
F. Sisto, vice president of New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association. “It’s time to take action before another tragedy strikes—we can’t afford to wait.”
The plan has also attracted some support from individual doctors, but the medical community in general has expressed concern over aspects of the legislation, particularly the requirement that doctors review a patient’s controlled substance prescription history on the system prior to prescribing and that doctors also report a prescription for controlled substances to the system at the time they issue it.
“We agree with the attorney general over his concern about the problem, but the mandates would be very unwieldly and could challenge physician practices that already are pressed for time,” said Dr. Frank G. Dowling, a Suffolk County psychiatrist.
Dowling, who serves as commissioner of public health and science for the Medical Society of the State of New York, said the requirements would likely discourage physicians from using opioid painkillers for patients who legitimately need them.
The medical organization advocates improvements to the state’s current database for tracking prescribed controlled substances, he said.
“We need to make the database easier to use. It’s clumsy and time-consuming, and information is lacking. We are not making the best use of the data we have,” Dowling said.