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Pa. drug abuse summit scheduled

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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Deaths from prescription drug abuse are rising even as addiction experts step up efforts to educate people about the problem and lawmakers introduce legislation designed to alleviate it.

Washington County on Thursday will host a summit on prescription drug abuse, its third since June, and a state House committee could vote next month on a bill that would create a statewide prescription drug database to help doctors and pharmacists identify problem patients.

“It's absolutely an epidemic all across the state,” said Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, sponsor of the bill.

Last week, Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha reported a record 71 accidental overdose deaths in 2012. That figure could grow with 14 cases pending. Allegheny County set a record with 261 deaths in 2011, the most recent number available.

“Professional doctor-shoppers,” as experts call them, see 10 doctors at once and often three or four a day, said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center. Many of them abuse the drugs and sell them on the street, he said.

Capretto said it would help to have a database that tracks prescriptions — which drugs, who fills them and how often. “It's only going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “The prescription drug monitoring system will help, but it won't stop it.”

The Pennsylvania Medical Society, a physician trade group, and Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association support the bill.

“We feel it is a necessity,” said Patricia Epple, CEO of the pharmacists' group.

Pennsylvania established a prescription drug monitoring system in the 1970s, but it tracks only Schedule II drugs, controlled substances that include methadone, oxycodone and morphine, among others. A Food and Drug Administration panel last week recommended adding Vicodin, the country's most-prescribed drug, to that list.

Pharmacists report monthly data on prescriptions dispensed but only to the state Attorney General's Office, which did not respond for comment.

“We're convinced a controlled-substance database would save lives,” said Scot Chadwick, vice president of governmental affairs for the medical society. “These systems deal with legal drugs. They have a legitimate use but we have to make sure they aren't abused.”

About 40 states, including Ohio and West Virginia, have systems similar to the one DiGirolamo proposes, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

“Anything like that is going to be helpful in fighting what has become a scourge on society in Pennsylvania and across the country,” said Richard Long, executive director of the state District Attorneys Association.

The monitoring program could help halt rogue doctors' “pill mills” and doctor-shopping patients, Long said.

Thursday's summit, at 6:30 p.m. at Canon-McMillan Senior High School in North Strabane, will include presentations from the federal Drug Enforcement Adminisration, the Washington Drug & Alcohol Commission, a pain management doctor and a recovering addict.

“I think people need to know what the extent of this problem is,” said District Attorney Gene Vittone, who is among the speakers. “We don't know who is getting what, in regards to medications.”

Accidental overdose deaths in Washington County bucked the trend elsewhere, falling to 33 in 2012 from 45 the year before, coroner's records show.

“I hope it is because of our efforts but I don't know,” Vittone said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or

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