U.S. senators hold Pittsburgh hearing on the drug overdose epidemic

Experts call for an end to doctor shopping for opioids

October 15, 2015
Appearing before a U.S. Senate hearing in Pittsburgh on the nation’s drug overdose epidemic are, from left: Ashley Potts, a team leader for crisis diversion at Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services based in Charleroi and a recovering drug addict; A. Jack Kabazie, director of the division of pain medicine at Allegheny Health Network; and Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone. - Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

PITTSBURGH – Experts at a U.S. Senate hearing in Pittsburgh on heroin abuse Thursday called for federal help in putting an end to addicts shopping for doctors to illegally obtain narcotic painkillers, something that has been fueling the nation’s drug overdose epidemic.

Those who testified at the hearing in Allegheny General Hospital, including Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, agreed heroin addiction largely begins with prescription drug abuse and that a good way to combat the problem would be through a nationwide monitoring network to prevent drug abusers from obtaining too many pharmaceuticals.

“We need to know who’s getting what,” Vittone testified before U.S. Senators from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey.

The Republican Toomey called the hearing to help educate him on the problem, which the Centers for Disease Control identified as the worst drug abuse epidemic in U.S. history.

“Sadly, Southwestern Pennsylvania has been especially hit hard by this epidemic,” Toomey said before a packed auditorium.

He said the epidemic was “invented two decades ago” when more powerful narcotic painkillers were introduced and too many of them made their way to the streets.

Nearly 170,000 Medicare enrollees also have been “actively involved in doctor shopping,” Toomey said.

The hearing came at a time when Congress is considering a number of bills to address the epidemic and a separate initiative is underway to identify Medicare enrollees who doctor shop and then limit them to using one physician and one pharmacy to get their prescription painkillers.

One of the bills would provide states with grants to establish computerized prescription drug monitoring programs that better prevent addicts from getting more drugs than what they should be obtaining.

Another bill would address the need for more long-term drug rehabilitation programs.

“Good treatment works,” said Casey, a Democrat. “It has to be good and sustaining.”

Vittone said Pennsylvania lawmakers did, in the fall of 2014, enact a prescription drug monitoring program, which went unfunded.

“It is imperative that this be done as soon as possible as Pennsylvania has become a source location for those coming from other states looking to acquire medication through pharmaceutical diversion,” Vittone stated in the written testimony he delivered to the hearing.

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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