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Deadly prescription; New York must better control distribution of painkillers

The recent News series in which a team of reporters and videographers chronicled the dark world of the prescription painkiller epidemic should be a catalyst for stronger state legislation and federal regulation.

Either way, the problem of prescription painkillers has hit the streets. Our streets.

In Erie County, more people die using prescription opiates than cocaine and heroin combined.

A team of News reporters delved into several cases, including the arrest of Dr. Pravin Mehta and the downfall of Michael McCall, a Cheektowaga man accused of operating a 33-member prescription drug gang.

The project chronicled Mehta's arrest in January by federal drug agents in Niagara Falls. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration called him a glorified drug dealer. McCall, meanwhile, was described by the DEA as a real drug dealer, but plying his trade with painkillers.

The moving words of parents of young people who died were shown in the pages of the paper, online and in video accounts. It's heart-wrenching to watch as the mother of Zach Crotty, 19, of Colden, crying, says, "It was the damn drugs that killed him." She and her husband go on to relive the horrible moments when a doctor told them that Zach had died. Or, listen to the parents of the late Brandon Kopacz, 23, of Elma, as they chronicle their futile fight to save their own son's life.

Not to say that this is strictly a problem for the young. The series also included the story of Alane Butler, 48, of Amherst, who eventually died of an overdose after becoming addicted to painkillers.

Too many people are dying as a result of a series of failures, whether it's doctors not trained on dosing and monitoring, or doctors either too naive or busy to spot signs of abuse or out-and-out drug trafficking. The rest could range from ignorance to denial.

One thing is certain; someone hooked on painkillers, even with limited resources, has a virtually endless supply available. Abusers or sellers will lie to unsuspecting or uncaring doctors to get their fix of medicines such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and other opioids.

This state should look closely at the tough standards being put in place in Washington state later this year. The state is launching a comprehensive push that will require cooperation from doctors consulting a pain specialist to prescribers having to maintain screening and treatment records and, for the first time in any state, entering a patient's progress in a statewide database.

Although New York State operates one of the oldest programs, physicians have complained that it is cumbersome and alerts of suspicious activity often arrive too late. Proposed state legislation would require doctors and pharmacists to access the data before prescribing a controlled substance, with an important point requiring doctors -- not just pharmacists -- to report prescriptions for the drugs to the state databases.

On a federal level, Congress passed the National All Schedules Prescription Reporting law in 2005 but no money was appropriated. The Obama administration set aside $2 million in 2009, only a fraction of what is needed. Money is obviously an issue in Washington these days, but the federal government could do more even by facilitating state efforts to deal with this festering problem.

There are several ways to better fight painkiller abuse. But the first is for states and federal officials to admit they have a problem and then appropriate proper funding and resources to take care of it.

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