State Senate approves prescription drug monitoring bill

If approved, Pa. law would prevent ‘doctor shopping’ by addicts, dealers

May 8, 2014
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The state Senate Thursday passed a bill that, if signed into law, would create a prescription drug monitoring program to prevent drug addicts or dealers from “doctor shopping” to get multiple orders of narcotics which are blamed, in part, for the state’s heroin epidemic.

Senate Bill 1180 now heads for consideration in the state House of Representatives, which approved a similar measure in October that became stalled in a Senate committee.

“Prescription drugs have surpassed street drugs as a public health and crime problem in our region,” said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg.

“This bill gives Pennsylvania the tools employed by other states to combat drug abuse,” he said.

The program would give the state Department of Health access to a portion of the computer program that is used by physicians and pharmacies to prevent abuses in who is prescribed Level V controlled substances and also reveal how often they order the drugs, such as oxycontin and anabolic steroids. Currently, there is no such database in Pennsylvania to determine whether a person is frequently visiting a variety of physicians to obtain too many narcotics.

Pharmacists and members of law enforcement, including Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, have been lobbying for a drug monitoring program similar to those already in place in Florida, Ohio and West Virginia.

Police say people who become addicted to these drugs often turn to heroin when they can’t get pills.

The program has been successful in other states, and they have resulted in Pennsylvania pharmacists getting out-of-state prescriptions, some of whom refused to fill them.

Solobay said the bill includes measures that give law enforcement access to the database when investigators have reasonable suspicion or probable cause of crimes involving prescriptions. He said the Senate bill, which has received praise from the state’s association of district attorneys, also would not require police to have search warrants to see the database.

Vittone’s office has made the heroin problem a top priority at a time when drug overdose deaths have been climbing to alarming levels.

Last year, there were 58 drug overdose deaths in Washington County, up from 36 in 2012 and just two in 1992, according to records at the Washington County coroner’s office.

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has seen an 89 percent increase in drug overdose deaths since 1999, Solobay said.

“I believe (the bill) creates a balance between stemming a public health crisis and privacy concerns,” Solobay 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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