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Pa. monitoring program to flag drug sales may curb overdose deaths

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 7:45 p.m.

WASHINGTON, Pa. — State lawmakers, spurred by a rise in prescription drug overdose deaths, are considering a monitoring effort aimed at preventing people from other states who are addicted to narcotic painkillers from obtaining the drugs in Pennsylvania.

Canonsburg pharmacist Gerald O'Hare told The (Washington) Observer-Reporter that he refused to fill five such prescriptions on Friday in his Jeffrey's Drugstore, suspecting people were trying to use cash to get illegal supplies of the drugs.

He said he does not have that problem at a pharmacy he owns in Ohio because the state runs prescriptions through a computerized central monitoring program to identify physicians and customers who abuse the system.

“The dealers are moving out. Now pharmacies are seeing these customers with all kinds of sob stories from Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee,” said Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, who said he wants to amend state law to help prevent addicts from easily using cash to get narcotics by traveling to different physicians and pharmacies in the state.

State House lawmakers have forwarded from committee for a final vote on the floor a measure to set up a Pennsylvania Accountability Monitoring System database that would flag patients or customers who have received an adequate supply of Schedule II drugs containing opiates or synthetic opiates.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said the law would be a major tool in preventing the illegal use of such drugs as OxyContin. He said his office has made prescription drug abuse a priority, given the high number of local overdose deaths.

Coroner Tim Warco said he investigated 40 overdose deaths last year in Washington County, 17 of them involving the use of opiates. There were 46 overdose deaths in the previous year, while 28 people died in that fashion in 2003 and just two in 1992.

Vittone called those figures “off the charts,” because statistics from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would indicate that for its population Washington County should host only half as many such deaths a year.

Prescription drug abuse has fueled a rise in heroin trafficking, because people who cannot afford the price of OxyContin turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative, Vittone said.

Kentucky's problem of dealers and addicts getting such drugs by “doctor shopping” was “eliminated almost immediately” after that state in July put in a monitoring system like the one being considered in Harrisburg, he said.

The Westmoreland County Coroner's Office said it investigated a record 71 drug overdose deaths last year and has probed 16 such cases in the first six weeks of this year — with five of them in one week's time.

Greene County Coroner Gregory Rohanna does not keep cause-of-death records but “obviously, I see more (overdose deaths) now than I did 10 or 15 years ago.”

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