Incoming AG seeks tighter prescription monitoring


Originally posted on The Boston Globe's website

Drug fight is top Healey priority

Boston, MA 110614 Attorney General elect Maura Healey (cq) addressed a group of environmentalists at a conference on the Challenges and Opportunities of the Evolving Electric Grid at JFK Library in Boston, Thursday, November 6 2014. () section: Metro slug: 07healeyreporter: Akilah Johnson

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

By Stephanie Ebbert

Maura Healey, the incoming attorney general, plans to announce on Monday an effort to expand the state database that monitors prescriptions — part of a larger campaign to combat heroin use and prescription drug abuse.

“This is an epidemic,” she said in an interview. “It is a public health crisis, and I think we need all hands on deck.”

She said the alarming uptick in heroin overdoses and prescription drug addiction prompted her to pull together a group that includes State Police, criminal prosecutors, civil enforcement attorneys, and health care and drug abuse prevention experts to develop a coordinated approach.

“We don’t have a choice. The numbers are increasing,” Healey said.

Healey, who is due to be sworn in Jan. 21, said in a statement that she intends to make addressing the addiction crisis her first priority, most notably by urging the incoming governor and other officials to broaden the reach of the existing Prescription Monitoring Program, run by the state Department of Public Health. The program, a secure website, is updated by doctors who write prescriptions and can be checked by pharmacists who fill them in an effort to spot patients’ patterns of abuse or fraud.

But the state does not require a pharmacist to run a patient’s name through the database before dispensing a prescription for a potentially addictive medication — an obvious gap that Healey wants to close and that may require legislation. She also pointed to the time lag in uploading the information to the state’s database, which currently limits the pharmacist’s ability to see the patient’s recent prescription history in real time — another limitation Healey aims to remove.

“There can be delays of several days or even weeks between the time that information is recorded to when it shows up in the system,” said Healey. “A Prescription Monitoring Program that is robust and vigorous should have real-time reporting of that information so that there isn’t this delay.”

The database also doesn’t share information with other states, so there’s no way to track prescriptions filled beyond Massachusetts’ borders, Healey said. She intends to work with attorneys general in other states on a system for sharing data.

Another initiative would call for patients suspected of doctor-shopping for prescription drugs to be “locked in” to use a single pharmacy for all their prescriptions, to better monitor potential misuse.

“We have seen there are individuals out there who fake scripts, forge scripts, and who present them at a number of different places and try to get them filled, go in the parking lot and engage in drug sales,” she said.

Healey said that when she got into the race for attorney general over a year ago, she began hearing from voters about a “devastating surge” in heroin and prescription drug abuse.

“I’ve heard too many heartwrenching stories over the last year,” she said. “I remember sitting with young women from all over the state in a program in South Boston, listening to them talk about getting into pills in middle school. These drugs are more dangerous and lethal than ever, and these girls are saying they had no idea what they were getting into, and within a year or two or three, they were hooked on heroin.”

The crisis, she said, has only been worsening, despite public officials’ efforts to combat it.

Governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in March, calling for an increase in funding for drug abuse prevention programs; permission for first responders to carry a drug that can prevent deaths in overdose cases; and an emergency ban on dispensing the use of the new painkiller, Zohydro, until its maker could produce a crush-resistant form that couldn’t be snorted or injected by addicts.

That ban, however, was overruled by a judge who found the state had no authority to reverse the federal approval of the painkiller.

Patrick also accelerated the timeline that would make it mandatory for doctors to enroll in the Prescription Monitoring Program, said Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health.

But pharmacists are still not required to use the database or to check it before dispensing medications.

As a result, there’s “no teeth,” to the prescription monitoring program, said Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey.

Morrissey said he has been speaking with pharmacists, trying to get more enrolled in the program, but only about half of the 600 retail pharmacists in Norfolk County are involved.

He lauded Healey for making her first official pronouncement on drug abuse, noting the extent of the problem in his region of Massachusetts. In Norfolk County, drug overdoses leapt from 64 in 2013 to 91 last year, Morrissey said.

“It’s great to have the new chief law enforcement person make it a top priority,” Morrissey said.

The incoming governor, Charlie Baker, a Republican, has also made curbing addiction one of the top priorities of his early administration, saying he wants to forge a coalition to curtail the usage of prescription painkillers. When he spoke to the Globe shortly after his election, Baker noted his own son had just been prescribed Percocet after breaking his arm while playing college football.

Healey said she also wants to focus on safe prescribing and reducing teenage access to prescription medicine, adding, “We owe it to our young people.”

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