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System sought to track painkillers; Effort being urged to reduce illicit use of prescription drugs

State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman pushed Friday for the adoption of a computerized tracking system to reduce inappropriate prescribing of addictive pain killers.

The system would establish a real-time online database to track opioid prescriptions written by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists.

Schneiderman's "I-STOP" bill -- short for Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act -- was introduced into the State Legislature last session and is similar to several other proposals to reduce doctor-shopping for painkillers, forged prescriptions and altered prescriptions.

"We have the technology, and it's almost law enforcement malpractice not to use it," Schneiderman said at a conference on prescription drug abuse at the University at Buffalo in Amherst.

A Buffalo News special report in March noted that more people die in Erie County from using prescription opiates than cocaine and heroin combined. Nationally, accidental drug deaths involving prescription opioids more than tripled from 4,000 in 1999 to 13,800 in 2006.

The problem includes inadvertent addictions of patients in pain, doctors providing drugs to dealers for money, inadequate training of medical professionals in the use of opioids, and addicts and dealers getting drugs from friends and family members.

How big is the problem? Americans comprise 4.6 percent of the world's population, yet consume 80 percent of the supply of narcotic painkillers, according to experts.

In addition to reporting opioid prescription information, Schneiderman's system would require prescribers and pharmacists to consult the database before prescribing and dispensing controlled substances.

Schneiderman said it's likely his proposal will be combined with others into a bill that can be passed in the next legislative session.

Described as a prescription drug abuse summit, the conference was organized by the office of U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. and featured experts in law enforcement, medicine, prevention, education and the law.

"The problem is amazingly complex," said Hochul, who noted that more than 70 people were arrested for selling painkillers in the last year in the Buffalo Niagara region.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, the White House director of national drug-control policy and a former Buffalo police commissioner, summarized the key elements of the nation's 2011 prescription drug abuse prevention plan released earlier this year.

The plan calls for improvements in education, monitoring, medication disposal and law enforcement related to opioids.

For instance, it calls for amending federal law to require anyone who requests Drug Enforcement Administration registration to prescribe controlled substances to be trained on responsible opioid prescribing practices as a precondition of registration.

The plan also calls for more drug take-back events, such as the one scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 29 at dozens of locations in Western New York.

More information is available at www.NationalPrescriptionDrugDroffOff.com.

"We can't arrest our way out of the prescription drug abuse problem," Kerlikowske said.

He called for a "holistic" solution and expressed optimism, saying the issue was once neglected but is now receiving more attention.

Experts said deterring abuse will depend on better education of physicians and patients, as well as better professional guidance on prescribing painkillers and treating addiction. For instance, a national survey a few years ago found that only 40 percent of doctors were trained to identify prescription drug abuse and addiction.

"Most of the problem revolves around ignorance and not doctors just handing out prescriptions," said Dr. Paul Updike, a pain management specialist who serves as director of chemical dependency at Sisters Hospital.

However, Updike stressed that the response to the problem must balance the need to reduce abuse while ensuring adequate access to painkillers for patients who need them.

email: hdavis@buffnews.com