Inquirer Editorial: Database could save lives

Posted: September 19, 2013

When Harrisburg lawmakers get back to work Monday, they'll face a raft of important issues vying for attention. Many simply won't make the cut, but a physician-backed initiative to safeguard thousands of Pennsylvanians from prescription painkiller overdoses shouldn't get lost in the shuffle once again.

For more than two years, the Pennsylvania Medical Society has pushed a much-needed measure that would give physicians and pharmacists across the state an early-warning system to detect patients - including an increasing number of women - who risk drug overdoses by abusing prescribed painkillers.

The proposal would bring the state in line with New Jersey and others in establishing a statewide database of patients being treated with narcotics. Coupled with an education effort dubbed "Pills for Ills, Not Thrills" that provides doctors with strategies for detecting pill-seeking patients, the physicians' group is doing its part. But without the database, patterns of patient drug abuse will continue to go undetected.

With adequate protections to safeguard medical data already shielded under federal patient-privacy rules - plus assurances that law enforcement authorities won't be able to sift through database records without court approval - the state should delay action no longer.

Indeed, the summer recess now coming to an end has provided lawmakers with what should be an even greater incentive to act on what a top prosecutor has called "the fastest-growing drug problem" in America.

A federal health study released in July found that, while men remain most at risk to suffer a fatal painkiller overdose, women's death rates have grown at a faster, five-fold rate over the last decade, costing as many as 48,000 lives.

Beyond identifying this worsening threat, a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report makes a key recommendation to stem overdoses that mirror's the medical society's legislative push. The CDC urged that physicians and pharmacists "use prescription-drug monitoring programs to identify patients who may be improperly obtaining or using prescription painkillers and other drugs." In other words, it is calling for a narcotics database.

This week, Gov. Corbett endorsed the concept. So no matter how crowded Harrisburg's agenda may be with other front-burner issues - from transportation funding, to pension reform, to scrapping the State Store system - lawmakers should establish this critical tool to help health-care providers safeguard more patients from prescription-drug abuse.

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