ShareThis Page

Pa. drug abuse summit scheduled

| 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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.