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W.Va. to test prescription drug abuse tracking system

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Within weeks, West Virginia plans to start testing an upgraded database that will be used to crack down on prescription drug abuse across the state.

The database of 30 million records will help law enforcement identify people who obtain large quantities of narcotic drugs, and doctors who over-prescribe controlled substances such as OxyContin and Lortab.

The drug monitoring system will be up and running by March, state lawmakers learned during a joint House-Senate interim committee meeting Monday.

A state advisory committee is establishing how the database will be used to investigate possible prescription drug diversion crimes. The committee will set up database search criteria to identify "red flags" -- signs that narcotic drugs are being prescribed or purchased illegally.

"They will be coming up with the parameters, the outliers, the [doctors] that are clearly over-prescribing," said Mike Goff, who administers the controlled substance monitoring program at the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy.

Last year, state lawmakers passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's sweeping substance abuse reform bill. The legislation included changes to the controlled substances database.

The records include the names of patients, doctors and pharmacists, as well as drug quantities.

Under the new law, people who have prescriptions filled must present a government-issued photo ID at pharmacies, making it more difficult to use fake names. The controlled substance monitoring system also now tracks customers' payment methods.

"This is getting a little more information into the system," said David Potters, the pharmacy board's executive director. "We're been working to add the additional [data] fields. The new system is supposed to be set up to do data-driven searches."

The system is separate from the new multi-state "NPLEX" system that tracks pseudoephredine sales. The popular allergy and cold medication is also used to manufacture methamphetamine.

After the pharmacy board's advisory committee establishes database search criteria used to identify unscrupulous doctors and prescription drug abusers, a separate "review committee" will pass along information about suspicious prescriptions and purchases to law enforcement authorities.

West Virginians on average receive 2.5 prescriptions per year for narcotic drugs -- one of the highest rates in the nation.

Currently, 15 State Police officers and regional drug taskforces have access to the state's controlled substance monitoring database.

Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas told lawmakers Monday that sheriff departments also would like to be able to tap the system. Deputies can request prescription drug data, but they must do so through State Police or a drug taskforce member.

McComas said many rural sheriff offices don't have deputies on regional taskforces.

"More than 30 people should have access," said McComas, who also serves as president of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association. "We're asking for another tool to help serve the people in our communities."

State Police Cpl. Wendy Comer warned lawmakers that wide-open access to the controlled substance database could lead to numerous problems and improperly target people who obtain painkillers for legitimate health issues -- or doctors with valid reasons for prescribing narcotics.

"The more people who have access to it, the more chances of misuse," Comer said. "It's just a tool. They have to have a reasonable suspicion to run someone's name."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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