Pa. lawmakers consider new law to address spike in overdose deaths

March 2, 2013
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Andy McNeil / Observer-Reporter
Stephanie Henson, an intelligence analyst for the Drug Enforcement Administration, was among those who spoke about prescription drug abuse during a summit recently at Canon-McMillan High School. Seated from left are Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, Ashley, a former drug addict who now helps others in recovery, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
A bottle of OxyContin, a powerful painkiller Order a Print
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Pharmacist Gerald O’Hare fills orders Friday at Jeffreys Drug Store in Canonsburg, which only accepts prescriptions from local customers.

Pharmacists in Pennsylvania are seeing prescriptions for narcotic painkillers written in other states that have clamped down on addicts skirting the system to get drugs under the radar of authorities.

Canonsburg pharmacist Gerald O’Hare said he refused to fill five such prescriptions Friday, suspecting they had been turned in by addicts or dealers who “doctor shop” and pay with cash to get illegal supplies of the drugs.

“We spend half our day trying to be detective,” said O’Hare, owner of Jeffrey’s Drugstore at 66 W. Pike St.

O’Hare doesn’t have that problem at a pharmacy he owns in Ohio, a state that runs every prescription through a computerized central monitoring program to identify physicians and customers who abuse the system. He said he supports a similar program lawmakers in Harrisburg are considering to address an alarming rate of prescription drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Brandon Neuman said he is coauthoring an amendment to state law to help prevent addicts from easily using cash to pay for prescription narcotics they get filled by traveling to many different physicians and pharmacies without detection in Pennsylvania.

“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 Neuman, D-North Strabane Township.

House Bill 317 would establish the Pennsylvania Accountability Monitoring System, a narcotics database that raises a red flag for doctors and pharmacists when they are met with a patient or customer who has already received an adequate supply of Schedule II drugs containing opiates or synthetic opiates. The bill, introduced by state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bensalem, has moved out of committee and is ready for a vote on the House floor, where it appears to have broad support, Neuman said.

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

Washington County Coroner Tim Warco investigated 40 overdose deaths last year, with seven of them involving heroin alone or mixed with other drugs. Seventeen of the deaths involved the used of opiates, Warco’s 2012 annual report indicates.

There were 46 overdose deaths the previous year in Washington County, where just two people died in that fashion in 1992 and 28 in 2003.

Greene County Coroner Gregory Rohanna said he doesn’t keep cause-of-death records.

“Obviously, I see more (overdose deaths) now than I did 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. The Westmoreland County coroner’s office has released its own alarming statistics on drug overdose deaths, stating it had investigated 16 such cases in the first six weeks on this year, five of which were investigated within one week’s time. Coroner Ken Bacha stated he investigated a record-setting 71 drug overdose deaths in 2012.

“The numbers are off the charts,” Vittone said.

The national average for overdose deaths a year is 10 per 100,000 people, Vittone said. With Washington County’s population of 208,282, it should be seeing 20 or 21 such deaths a year, he said citing statistic from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“We’re almost double that,” Vittone said “It’s insane.”

Prescription drug abuse has led to an increase in heroin trafficking, he said. Oxycontin sells for $1 a milligram and when addicts can’t afford an 80-mg dose of the drug they turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative, Vittone said.

He said the problem involving the ease with which drug dealers and addicts get these narcotics by doctor shopping was “eliminated almost immediately” after Kentucky put in a monitoring system like the one on the table in Harrisburg.

That state’s program, known as the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, became law in July, at a time when three people were dying each day there from drug overdoses.

Vittone said physicians are under pressure from drug manufacturers to make these drugs available for legitimate purposes, yet they don’t have a monitoring program to trigger the identities of people who abuse them. Other doctors find it profitable to recklessly dispense these drugs in large quantities.

Charles M. Kokoska Jr., a dentist who had practices in Peters Township and Millsboro, was sentenced Feb. 4 to 30 to 60 months in prison for illegally prescribing 6,600 narcotic painkiller pills to seven people between January 2009 and October 2010.

Oliver W. Herndon, a former physician in Peters, will spend no less than 11 years in federal prison after pleading guilty in September in federal court to prescribing 14,000 high doses of oxycodone and Opana after seeing some of his patients for about three minutes.

Meanwhile, Roy Getty Arthrell of Finleyville was indicted in a 2011 sting that was considered to be the most sophisticated painkiller ring ever toppled in Western Pennsylvania. He was among 19 people prosecuted for obtaining 1.6 million milligrams of oxycodone with a street value of $1.6 million, using phony prescription pads and real doctor’s names from information found on the Internet. He was sentenced in September to 18 months in federal prison, court records show.

Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca said it’s going to take legislative action to “give us the tools” to deal with prescription drug abuse.

She said she is working with Vittone on a plan to create a program and seek grants to deal with areas in the county where there is a connection between blight and drug activity.

Vittone said education can be an effective tool in addressing the problem, that Washington County officials have participated in a number of recent prescription drug abuse summits in an attempt to convince people to become aware of the drugs not being used in their medicine cabinets and how to dispose of them.

People need to know they must call 911 immediately if they suspect someone they know is overdosing on these drugs as ambulances all carry the drug to counteract opiates, Vittone said.

“We’ll deal with the legal ramifications later,” he said.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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