ALBANY — State officials are working on ways to curb the black market and excessive use of hydrocodone and other addictive painkillers, including more aggressive monitoring of prescriptions and stricter penalties to prevent abuse.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, has been pushing immediate online review and reporting by doctors and pharmacists of each prescription written and filled for a patient. That would prevent doctor shopping by addicts and dealers who resell drugs.
Nationwide, pharmacies received and ultimately dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010, a dramatic rise over the previous decade, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data.
New York's Republican-controlled Senate recently passed bills to reclassify hydrocodone, sold as Vicodin, Norco and Lortab, to the same restricted group as oxycodone. That would require a new prescription each time, with no refills. Another bill passed by the Senate would increase criminal penalties for physicians and pharmacists who illegally divert prescription drugs.
Spokesmen for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Schneiderman and legislative leaders confirmed ongoing talks aimed at passing legislation this year. "We want to get it done," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said Monday.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return April 17 for a 2012 session expected to last two more months.
In January, Schneiderman's office issued a report on an epidemic in Americans' abuse of painkillers and introduced legislation to establish what he called the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, or I-STOP. That would require the state Department of Health to establish a computer reporting system where doctors and other care providers would have to review a patient's complete prescription drug history online before writing new scrips for painkillers. Pharmacists would have to check the same system to confirm all such prescriptions are legitimate before filling them.
New York regulations now require practitioners, including dentists, to report prescriptions they write monthly to the health department, which is considering a shorter reporting period.
"We are continuing to work with the governor, Senate and Assembly to ensure that the I-STOP legislation is passed in the coming weeks," said Jennifer Givner, spokeswoman for the attorney general. His report cited 15,000 deaths nationwide from painkiller overdoses in 2008 and New York prescriptions for narcotics rising from 16.6 million in 2007 to nearly 22.5 million in 2010.
At a February hearing, state Sen. Kemp Hannon, the Long Island Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, said that total exceeds New York's population and doesn't include refills. He posted a paper in April calling the situation a crisis and sponsored the legislation passed by the Senate to clarify statutes so all licensed medical professionals face criminal penalties for illegally prescribing or dispensing drugs. That would make the crime a felony with sentences up to 25 years, a measure intended to put an end to so-called pill mills.
"New York is experiencing an unprecedented fallout from the abuse of prescription drugs, including record numbers of overdoses, suicides, new addictions and armed pharmacy robberies resulting in casualties," Hannon said. State records show that a couple who pleaded guilty after a deadly pharmacy holdup last June, where four people were shot dead, had legally obtained and filled prescriptions for almost 12,000 pain pills from dozens of doctors over four years.
"The Senate recognizes that the abuse of prescription drugs is a major growing problem that has to be addressed," Senate Republican Conference spokesman Mark Hansen said Tuesday. "We have been out front on this issue for several years with legislation and hearings and we hope that ongoing talks will result in a law that effectively controls and monitors access to these drugs and curbs abuse."