The latest state efforts to combat the epidemic of painkiller and heroin abuse are focusing on prescription medication.
State officials this this week adopted guidelines for physicians prescribing opioids, while a new prescription drug monitoring program is set to become fully functional in August.
The efforts are critical as Pennsylvania combats a national epidemic, officials said.
More than 259 million opioid prescriptions were written across the U.S. in 2012, and an estimated 1.9 million Americans are addicted to opioid pain pills, according to a study by the National Security Council.
The study found that opioid pain pill prescriptions lead to heroin use.
“By reducing the pattern of over-prescribing painkillers that have such a high risk for abuse, we are fighting back against opioid abuse and heroin use before those habits even begin,” Gov. Tom Wolf said.
Wolf on Tuesday announced that the State Board of Medicine adopted guidelines for prescribing opioids in the emergency room and to non-cancer patients with chronic pain. It will vote on two other sets of guidelines – one for geriatrics and one for obstetrics and gynecology – in August.
The State Board of Pharmacy and the State Board of Dentistry also adopted opioid prescribing guidelines this week.
The guidelines were presented to the medical boards by Wolf and members of his administration.
Monitoring to launch soon
The state is coupling its guidelines with a prescription drug monitoring program.
The program, which has been in development since 2014, is expected to be fully up and running by Aug. 25, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. While pharmacists already are enrolled, medical practices will begin registering on Aug. 8.
The program will track the prescription and distribution of substances such as opioid pain pills that the federal government considers likely to be abused or to make users dependent on them.
The goal of the monitoring program is to help health care providers identify patients who are doctor shopping or obtaining more pills than they need, and potentially becoming addicted.
The program’s launch includes training for physicians on how to help patients who are suspected of abusing prescription medication.
“It is important that medical professionals understand their critical role,” Wesley Culp, spokesperson for the department said.
Physicians, known officially as prescribers, will be required to use the system to verify whether their patients are prescribed any controlled substances.
They are only required to check when prescribing medication to the patient for the first time, or if there is reason to believe that a patient may be abusing drugs.
Other employees, such as registered nurses, can also be designated to access the system.
Some physicians, meanwhile, will be exempt from using the database, according to the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
The exemptions cover, for example, practitioners in hospice care and practitioners working at correctional facilities, where patients cannot lawfully visit doctors outside the facilities.
Pharmacists aleady on board
Pharmacists have been reporting to the system since June 24.
As dispensers, they are required by law to enter into the system each time they fill a prescription for a controlled substance. The entry must be made within 72 hours of filling the prescription.
Entries include, among other details, the prescribing physician’s name and the date the prescription was written. It also includes patient information, such as date of birth, gender and address.
Under state law, information in the database is to remain confidential and not be disclosed to unauthorized users.