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Pennsylvania drug program portrayed as a life-saving tool

Jason Cato
| Monday, March 10, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

An online prescription drug monitoring program in Pennsylvania could help doctors and pharmacists keep painkillers away from addicts, medical professionals said on Monday, as state lawmakers returned to Harrisburg to discuss the topic.

“The database is a vital tool that will help save lives,” said Dr. Michael Ashburn, a medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Pain Medicine Center in Philadelphia. “But its presence itself will not solve the problem of prescription drug abuse.”

Health care officials, lawmakers and law enforcement agencies are searching for ways to combat a crisis in drug overdose deaths that tops 36,000 a year.

The state House of Representatives late last year passed legislation to overhaul the state's 41-year-old prescription drug monitoring program. A Senate version is scheduled for discussion next week.

More than 100 people a day die from drug overdoses nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drugs kill four Pennsylvanians each day, with the Keystone State ranking 14th among states at 15.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

“Drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States,” Dr. Carrie DeLone, the state's physician general, said during a telephone news conference coordinated by the Pennsylvania Medical Society in Harrisburg.

Drug-related deaths have tripled since 1990, after a 10-fold spike in opioid painkiller prescriptions, DeLone said. Addiction to painkillers often leads to heroin abuse, DeLone said, noting about eight in 10 heroin users abused pain medication prescribed by doctors who vow to do no harm.

“That has become a very difficult tightrope to walk,” DeLone said.

A digital drug-monitoring database would allow medical professionals to see patients' medical histories in real time, including the names of their doctors, medications and pharmacies, the medical professionals said.

Law enforcement agencies would need probable cause to seek information from a drug-monitoring database envisioned in House and Senate bills. The same is true for the current database, which exists only in paper form.

The digital version would establish an expanded database of drug classifications, available instantly to medical professionals. Only the Senate version would require doctors and pharmacists to check it before prescribing or issuing a narcotic for pain to a patient for the first time.

Doctors who participated in Monday's discussion differed on whether checking the database should be required. Dr. John Goldman, an infectious disease specialist from PinnacleHealth in Harrisburg, said it's important because of doctor-shopping and pill-shopping by patients.

“It should be mandatory checking for narcotic medicines, simply because some people seeking them are very good at it,” he said. “Physicians are notoriously bad at figuring out who has chronic pain and who does not.”

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

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