|Wednesday, December 19, 2001
|$1 million price may stop implementation
OxyContin database proposed by panel
|Opponents say the program would violate the relationship between physician and patient.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
RICHMOND - A state panel looking for ways to reduce pharmaceutical drug abuse called Tuesday for a prescription monitoring program that would make it harder for addicts to pose as patients.
But at the same time, members of Attorney General Randolph Beales' Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force said money may not be available for the program.
The computerized database, which would allow police to identify easily "doctor shoppers" who feign illness or injury to obtain OxyContin and other painkillers from multiple physicians, would cost at least $1 million to implement.
Getting the General Assembly to approve the program at a time when the state is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall could prove difficult.
"My perception is that the prescription drug abuse problem of last summer and last winter that caused this task force to be created ... does not command the attention that it did prior to Sept. 11," Deputy Attorney General Bradley Cavedo said.
However, legislators who serve on the task force plan to submit a bill at the upcoming session, with the realization that funding may not come until 2003.
The panel of law enforcement, health care and drug treatment officials made at least two other recommendations requiring legislative action - making distribution of some drugs less powerful than OxyContin a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and doubling the number of state police officers assigned to investigate illegal prescription drug use.
It also advocated better treatment, including drug courts, and suggested that sentencing guidelines for the distribution of OxyContin be increased.
Abuse of OxyContin, which some say is responsible for most of the 67 oxycodone-related deaths in Western Virginia since 1997, has dominated discussion among the task force since it was created in April.
Police say that doctors - either misled by conniving drug abusers or motivated by their own criminal intent - are the main supply for an OxyContin black market in which abusers crush the pills and snort or inject the powder. The drug produces an intense high, often followed by addiction that has caused a surge in crime in far Southwest Virginia.
A prescription monitoring program would allow police to find out if someone received drugs under suspicious circumstances.
Although details have yet to be worked out, pharmacists would be required by law to submit data electronically on certain types of prescriptions they fill to the state Department of Health Professions, which would maintain the database. Only police officers who are investigating a specific case would be allowed access.
Money is not the only obstacle; some say the program would violate the relationship between physician and patient.
"The main concern here is one of principle, said Kent Willis, head of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "A fundamental aspect of the right of privacy in this nation is the right of an individual and his or her physician to have confidential conversations about the patient's health."
Seventeen states currently have prescription monitoring programs, although not all of them are active.
Aware that the proposal may face opposition, task force members point out that information from the database will be tightly restricted. "My view is the best way to approach the legislature is to show them this is a tool of law enforcement," Cavedo said. "I think there is a concern that this is a tool of Big Brother, and I'm concerned about that concern."
Because "doctor shopping" alone is not a crime in Virginia, police would use the program as an investigative tool - not as the sole basis for criminal charges.
"It would help us identify people who have large quantities of the drug, because people who have large quantities often are dealing it," said Lee County Commonwealth's Attorney Tammy McElyea, who serves on the task force.