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Families seek system to track drug use; Prescription painkillers linked to abuse, deaths

Avi Israel will travel to Washington, D.C., this week, hoping the story of his son's death will spur more action against an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

He will be joined by other parents from Western New York who carry the same burden and a similar message.

They have channeled their grief into a growing movement to establish a better system to track narcotic prescription drugs, improve training of physicians in their use and educate patients about the dangers.

"My son's death was not necessary," said Israel, whose plans include meetings with federal officials and representatives in Congress, including those from the Buffalo Niagara region.

His 20-year-old son, Michael, who became addicted to opioid painkillers prescribed by physicians, killed himself in his Buffalo home last year.

Hospitalizations and deaths like his are becoming all too common.

There were enough prescription painkillers prescribed in the United States in 2010 to medicate every American adult round-the-clock for a month, according to a report issued earlier this year by State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a push for state legislation to help combat what many view as a crisis.

Nationally, accidental drug deaths involving prescription opioids more than tripled from 4,000 in 1999 to 13,800 in 2006. There were 113 drug deaths in the Buffalo Niagara region in 2008, with 84 involving opioids.

Schneiderman's report relied in part on statistics and anecdotes from "Rx for Danger," a series that The Buffalo News published last year.

"Our young people and adults, too, are not being informed that they are taking synthetic heroin. If you were told that, then you might have second thoughts about using that drug for pain," said Patricia McDonald, who will join Israel and others on the lobbying campaign.

Her daughter, Adrianne, 27, died Feb. 6, 2011, from a heroin overdose. McDonald is convinced the real cause was related to drugs -- including the painkiller Lortab, as well as Adderall and Xanax -- her daughter had been taking at a doctor's direction.

McDonald said she suspected but didn't know Adrianne was hooked on the opioid painkiller. Her doctor cut off the prescriptions immediately after the arrest in late January 2011 of a Niagara Falls physician on charges of illegally distributing painkillers.

Adrianne, who had tried heroin in the past but had stopped, returned to it with fatal consequences, McDonald said.

"Getting cut off abruptly like that was not right," she said. "But there also was no justification for the drugs she was on in the first place."

In New York, Israel, McDonald and others are seeking passage of a bill before the State Legislature goes on break in June that will establish a "real-time" reporting system so doctors and pharmacists can see what controlled substances a patient has been prescribed. They also want a continuing education requirement for doctors who prescribe controlled substances and assurances that patients receive adequate information about the potential dangers of the medications.

Among the bills under consideration is Schneiderman's Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act, or I-STOP. But there are other bills and no apparent consensus yet on how to move forward, Israel said.

The Medical Society of the State of New York has expressed concern over aspects of the legislation, particularly the requirement that doctors review a patient's controlled substance prescription history on the system before prescribing and that doctors also report a prescription for controlled substances to the system at the time they issue it.

Israel said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has the authority to make changes through an executive order.

For instance, he contends, the state could and should add prescription painkiller tracking to the systems emerging across the state to share health information electronically among doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacists and laboratories.

These systems, known generally as regional health information organizations, include HealtheLink in Western New York.

Daniel E. Porreca, executive director of the organization, said he is unaware of any official effort to enlist HealtheLink in such an initiative. However, the system would be an appropriate way to track such drugs, he said.

"We do offer the ability for health care providers to have a lot of medical history about patients," he said.

One of the goals of the Washington, D.C., trip is to lobby for stable funding forHealtheLink and similar efforts to build an electronic medical record that, one day, may be connected across the country.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus plan, included $19 billion for health care information technology, including financial incentives to doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic medical records.

In 2010, HealtheLink received the largest Beacon Community Award in the United States from the Department of Health and Human Services. The Beacon Project, funded through the stimulus, was created to help communities already ahead nationwide in building a health information technology system to further strengthen that system.