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Some want to strengthen state's prescription monitoring program

Click here to read more stories in "Pillage," a series examining prescription drug abuse in West Virginia.

Click here to look at a graphic that goes with this story. 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last year, state legislators approved a package of bills aimed at making a dent in West Virginia's prescription drug abuse epidemic.

Among other things, the new laws toughened penalties for using false information to get a prescription, and will eventually make health providers write all prescriptions on tamper-proof pads.

This year, some lawmakers plan to focus on strengthening the state's prescription drug monitoring program, a database that tracks all prescriptions filled in the state. Experts say policymakers should also try to help more West Virginians access treatment for addiction.

West Virginia is one of 35 states with a prescription monitoring program, and the state Board of Pharmacy is working to link the database with some surrounding states.

Unlike many other states, though, West Virginia's monitoring system isn't proactive. By law, police, pharmacy and medical boards can only access the data during an investigation.

The system doesn't flag patterns of unusual prescribing. It doesn't send routine reports to health-care providers to track possible doctor shopping.

A recent report from the state Legislative Auditor's office recommends changing the system so that it can detect warning signs of inappropriate prescribing.

The Prescription Monitoring Program Center of Excellence, a national organization based at Brandeis University in Boston, is encouraging states to use their databases proactively as "a good public health measure," said director John Eadie.

"It's a life-saving issue," Eadie said. "If the data doesn't get analyzed and the data doesn't get out, then the data is sitting in their files. And we know from experience that many of these people [who abuse prescription drugs] are dying."

Policymakers should also focus on helping more West Virginians access a full range of addiction rehabilitation services, said Mike O'Neil, a pharmacy professor at the University of Charleston and chairman of the state's Controlled Substance Advisory Board.

"At the end of the day, even if you turn that doctor shopper away, you still have an addict," he said.

Substance abuse has huge costs to the state's criminal justice, education and health systems, said Michele Burnside, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center.

"A lot of the monies that are going into those systems are actually cleaning up the issues, not preventing them," Burnside said.

Past legislative efforts to fund substance-abuse prevention and treatment through increased taxes on alcohol have failed.

Reach Alison Knezevich at alisonk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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