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Editorial: Eliminate financial incentives for opioids

The correlation is a strong one: Doctors in New York State who receive payments from opioid makers prescribe more of them than doctors who get no payments.

That was the finding of a report released this month by the New York State Health Foundation, as reported in The News. The foundation used data from 2013 to 2015.

Nearly 3,400 doctors in the state who wrote opioid prescriptions for Medicare patients were paid more than $3.5 million by drug companies.

Most of the payments to the doctors were made to cover the cost of meals, the foundation’s report said. The report identified four doctors from the region as receiving at least $10,000 in payments, including one in Erie County who collected $483,901 over three years. The mind races trying to picture some of those meals.

Correlation does not prove causation, of course. It may be that doctors who already write a fairly high number of opioid prescriptions interact more with the drug companies as part of doing business. Such doctors would be offered more paid speaking opportunities, for example, for their expertise in the field.

Still, the link between payments from Big Pharma and the writing of prescriptions is a worrisome one, particularly for anyone who has lost a family member to opioid addiction.

Some doctors in our area have been charged or convicted of wrongdoing in high-profile cases. Dr. Pravin Mehta, who was known as “Dr. Feel Good” in Niagara Falls, in 2016 was sent to prison for two years for writing painkiller prescriptions improperly. Dr. Eugene Gosy, of Amherst, this year awaits trial on charges that he wrote narcotics prescriptions for six patients that led to their deaths.

On the positive side, Dr. Thomas Madejski, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, notes that New York State has the second-lowest rate of opioid prescribing in the country. Madejski said the total number of prescriptions written by doctors in the state has fallen by 20 percent since 2013.

Also, the Erie County Department of Health in February reported that the number of county residents dying from opioid overdoses fell in 2017, the first decline since 2013. Still, more than 1,000 Erie County residents have died from opioid-related drug use in the past five years.

State and county health officials have made progress in dealing with the opioid crisis, helping to raise public consciousness and to educate responders in how to save addicts’ lives. But something must be done on the supply side, to make sure there are no financial incentives for doctors to write unneeded prescriptions for potentially deadly narcotics.

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