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Law will save lives; Agreement will slow the epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse

New York took an important step this week to help save lives by better controlling the dispensing of powerful but addictive painkillers. While some doctors are understandably concerned about the time this effort could take away from patient care, action was needed to combat an epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Thus, whatever the inconvenience, in the end it enhances patient care.

The agreement was hammered out on a bill proposed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and concluded this week with the agreement of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders. It will require physicians and pharmacists to check a "real-time" database before dispensing certain drugs.

The need has been felt around the state, but nowhere more than in Buffalo. Avi and Julie Israel lost their son Michael last year, when the 20-year-old, battling an addiction to prescription painkillers, committed suicide. Suzanne Crotty of Colden lost her son, Zach, who died in 2009 of an overdose. Downstate, four people were murdered last year during a drug robbery at a Long Island pharmacy.

The Buffalo News published a special report last year called "Rx for Danger." It laid out the growing prescription drug problem in New York, which is hardly alone in dealing with what amounts to a public health crisis. Among the series' revelations were that prescription opioids have become more popular among drug abusers than cocaine and that Western New York is a hot spot for some of the most abused opioids, including hydrocodone and oxycodone.

The pending law is designed in part to thwart the problem of doctor- and pharmacy-shopping by addicts and those who illegally trade in prescription narcotics. It will also make New York one of the first states to require electronic prescriptions for certain drugs. That requirement will kick in in two years and is designed to deal with the problem of fraudulent paper prescriptions. Presumably, that system could also be designed to check the real-time database automatically.

Significantly, the measure also provides for a drug-disposal program to encourage New Yorkers to discard unneeded drugs in the medicine cabinets. That's where most young people get their drugs, Schneiderman said. The law would also allow for dispensing certain drugs on an emergency basis and for certain conditions, such as long-term pain.

It includes an education program to ensure that physicians understand the ever-increasing problem of prescription drug abuse.

Sad to say, doctors sometimes contribute to this problem out of something other than mere ignorance. Last year, Dr. Pravin V. Mehta – known by many as "Dr. Feel Good," according to authorities – was arrested and charged with dispensing prescriptions for powerful narcotics from his Niagara Falls medical office as if they were candy. He is one of more than 400 doctors across the country who have been accused of illegally dealing in prescription painkillers since 2004. Mehta's case is still pending.

The need for the state to impose new controls is beyond dispute.

Currently, the state has a prescription drug database, but its use is voluntary and runs up to 45 days behind. It is clearly insufficient to a problem that is taking lives around the state.