W.Va., others to link Rx database to hinder, halt 'doctor shoppers'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At the Patrick Street Drug Emporium, it takes a pharmacist just a few clicks on the computer to spot a potential "doctor shopper."
Did the person visit multiple pharmacies in the past week for prescriptions? Did they rack up a four-month supply of OxyContin in only a few weeks?
The computer will help answer those questions. For nearly a decade, West Virginia has electronically tracked every prescription filled for controlled substances -- those with a high potential for abuse, such as narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety medications.
If the customer travels to other states to load up on prescriptions, though, the system isn't so helpful.
The state Board of Pharmacy is working to change that. Last month, the board signed on to a national project that will let states share data. So far, nine states have joined the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy InterConnect project, including two states that border West Virginia -- Ohio and Virginia.
Another 10 states are reviewing the program, said Carmen Catizone, director of NABP.
"Hopefully, by the end of the year, we should have about 20 states signed up and ready to go," he said.
The national system is scheduled to launch by July 31.
West Virginia is working to upgrade its software to make the change, with hopes of being ready by late summer or early fall, said David Potters, director of the state pharmacy board.
At Drug Emporium's Barboursville location, people often visit doctors and pharmacies in Ohio and Kentucky, in addition to the Mountain State, said Jerry Leonard, director of pharmacy services for four Drug Emporium stores.
"Literally, they could get prescriptions filled in all three states on the same day," he said, "and no one would find out, as long as they're paying cash."
Another change also is in store for the state's monitoring program. Under a law passed last year, all pharmacies in West Virginia must have Internet access beginning July 1. Previously, some pharmacies couldn't participate in the state's database because they weren't connected to the Web.
West Virginia has been trying to link with other states for years, but technical and funding problems have stood in the way.
The InterConnect program won't cost West Virginia a penny, Potters said.
"That was part of the attractiveness," he said.
West Virginia previously had considered joining a federal program to link state databases, Potters said. That one would have cost up to $60,000 to start out, and only a few states had signed up.
Doctors and pharmacists use the system to detect doctor shoppers. Police use it to investigate drug trafficking and pill mills.
Each state has different laws on who can get into the database, and InterConnect will make sure the linked system follows those rules, Potters said.
In West Virginia, police have access to the database only if they have a court order to do so, or are a member of a drug task force. In some states, any sheriff or sheriff's deputy can check out the program, Potters said.
"[InterConnect] is supposed to respect each state's laws," Potters said. "It won't be carte blanche access."
Sgt. M.T. Smith of the West Virginia State Police's Bureau of Criminal Investigations called the state's database "probably one of the most successful programs as far as pharmaceutical diversion that has ever been implemented."
Before West Virginia's database launched in 2002, he said, police had to drive to different pharmacies to gather records.
"What used to take months, now takes a matter of minutes," he said.
Still, West Virginia health providers aren't required to check the database when filling or writing prescriptions. Some "are turning a blind eye" to drug abuse, said Smith, who wants more doctors and pharmacists to take advantage of West Virginia's existing technology.
"It would be great [to share data with other states]," Smith said, "but at the same time, until we get everybody using it in this state, that's a second priority."
Leonard of Drug Emporium said it's up to each pharmacist to use his or her professional judgment on how often to tap into the database. Some pharmacists check the system for every customer. Others only use the system when they're suspicious. These days, many pharmacists are suspicious of just about everybody, Leonard said.
"It's really very discouraging, because we've allowed individuals who basically play the system to color our perception of people who are in legitimate chronic-pain situations," he said. "That's a pretty sad situation."
Still, Leonard called the system a "tremendous tool" for thwarting drug diversion.
People determined to get their pills can be argumentative at the pharmacy counter, he said.
"When you didn't have access to all the records, it was difficult to stand your ground," he said. "From that perspective, knowledge is power."
Reach Alison Knezevich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1240.