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State, Local Leaders and Officials Draft Rx Drug Abuse Law

As the number of people getting addicted to prescription drugs increases, state legislators and local officials are working together to find a way to get it under control. In the final installment of a three part series, WOSU takes a look at some ideas drafted in a bill that could help put a stop to a problem that some say has reached epidemic proportions.

It's a multi-billion dollar industry nationwide: prescription pain medicine. While the drugs provide relief to many who experience severe or chronic pain or have a terminal disease, the pills have a seedier side.

Drug dealers find prescription pills, especially synthetic opioids - like Oxycodone, incredibly lucrative. Police say some dealers pocket up to $6,000 a day in Columbus. While most doctors stand firmly by the Hippocratic Oath, a few open pill mills, financially benefiting from addicts. While money's being made, it's also being lost...the cost of drug treatment, lost wages, millions of taxpayer dollars squandered by fraud.

Currently, there's no law on the books that requires Ohio pain management clinics be regulated - that's why it's so easy to open up pill mills - where doctors write scripts without much, if any, discussion with patients.

Local law enforcement, the medical community and state legislators are working together to draft a bill they hope will put an end to or at least reduce the many problems stemming from prescription drug abuse.

State Representative Raymond Pryor of Chillicothe is working on the bill.

"The legislation that we put together would regulate the pain clinics and those doctors practicing in the pain clinics, requiring registration and licensure through the State of Ohio, the Ohio Medical Board, the Ohio Pharmacy Board," Pryor said.

Law enforcement officials say regulating pain management clinics could go a long way in helping shut down unlawful pill mills.

Pryor and other lawmakers support another tool - one that would mandate doctors and pharmacists use OARRS. OARRS stands for Ohio Automated Prescription Reporting System. The system tracks narcotic prescriptions and lets physicians to check to see if patients are "doctor shopping." But here's the problem - officials say fewer than 15 percent use it.

Columbus Police Detective Jeff Collins said OARRS could stop doctor shopping, "dead in its tracks."

"It's not hard. The average physician's going to spend 15 to 20 minutes with you. He's going to have you fill out the form. It doesn't take anything for this doctor to place a person's name, their address, their date of birth into this system. And within 15 to 30 seconds going to have an answer that he could walk in with this person and say, 'I see you're being treated for this particular stuff, what is it I can do for you today?'," Collins said.

But some state medical groups, like the Ohio State Medical Association, object to the mandate. Jason Koma speaks for the organization. He acknowledges OARRS can be a useful tool when physicians find it in their clinical judgment to use it. But the system, he said, also can be cumbersome, time-consuming and lack up-to-date information.

"A blanket mandate, or a blanket, sweeping you know kind of designation to make physicians either use it or anything is concerning because it's not the best approach. OARRS does not represent a multi-faceted solution to this problem," Koma said.

Representative Pryor is considering a compromise that only would require OARRS be used by certain physicians or in certain situations. For instance, emergency room doctors who routinely see new patients seeking pain meds would be required to run the prescription checks.

"They don't know that patient then I think we should mandate," Pryor said.

Possibly one of the most controversial segments of the bill is drug testing patients, to make sure the drugs are actually being taken and not being sold on the streets. Pryor said this does not target the average individual who fills a script after dental surgery and decides they don't need it.

"Only in those cases where there appears to be some kind of abuse or a question mark by a professional, or a law enforcement officer even, that's the direction we want to go," he noted.

The state loses millions each year from fraud related to prescription drugs. Pryor says recent figures show as much as $40 million dollars in fraudulent workers compensation claims are filed each year. He said blood or urine testing could save Ohio taxpayers millions annually in Medicaid, Medicare and workers' comp fraud.

"If that person is found not to be in compliance and is not taking the drug or is selling the drug, then they should be cut off. We should not be paying for it," Pryor said.

While local leaders and other groups are working together to try to come up with a consensus on the bill, they remain mindful of patients who have legitimate needs and the doctors treating them.

Jason Koma with the Ohio State Medical Association points out that the state already has entities that monitor doctors operating outside the scope of their license, and he said they have the ability to sanction those who break the rules

"We need to use this as best as we can. But at the end of the day we also need to be aware that a doctor needs to be able to treat his or her patient. And anything that comes from curbing this epidemic needs to remember that specific and important fact," Koma said.

But when more people in Ohio overdose from synthetic opioids than heroin and cocaine combined; when a Columbus drug treatment facility sees a 78 percent increase in the number of people seeking help for opioid addiction; and when the demand for opioid abuse treatment is so great that centers are opened solely for that purpose; drug counselors and police say more rules are needed.