Editorial: Two positive steps taken to combat drug abuse
Two developments occurred last week that should help in efforts to combat prescription drug abuse.
One will place tighter controls on an opioid painkiller that is often diverted for nonmedical uses. The other should give a clearer understanding about whether the amount of prescription drugs shipped to West Virginia is in line with what would be expected for the state’s population or way beyond a reasonable level, as many people suspect.
One positive step came from the Food and Drug Administration, which said it will formally ask that hydrocodone be rescheduled as a Schedule II drug from its current Schedule III status. The result of that change would be to limit which kinds of medical professionals can write a prescription and how many times it can be refilled.
The action, if approved by other federal agencies, would put the same prescribing controls on hydrocodone that already in place for OxyContin. The abuse of both drugs has risen steadily in the last decade, contributing to addiction, related crime and high fatal overdose rates. West Virginia knows full well the consequences of the drug addiction epidemic, and earlier this month an independent health organization said the Mountain State has the highest fatal drug overdose rate in the country. The bulk of those overdoses stem from prescription drugs, and hydrocodone is the most prescribed drug in the country, according to the government.
Both U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and state Delegate Don Perdue, retired pharmacist who leads the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Health and Human Resources Committee, had lobbied for the change and lauded last week’s FDA recommendation. “Rescheduling hydrocodone ... will help prevent these highly addictive drugs from getting into the wrong hands and devastating families and communities,” Manchin said. Perdue said the switch will make doctors more aware of potential problems when they prescribe it .
Perdue acknowledged that the change would lead to more inconvenience to people who truly need hydrocodone. But doing nothing also means continued rampant abuse of the drug, which the FDA conceded in its announcement last week: “The FDA has become increasingly concerned about the abuse and misuse of opioid products, which have sadly reached epidemic proportions in certain parts of the United States.” The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had sought the change for a decade.
The other development last week was a ruling by Boone County Circuit Judge William Thompson that four pharmaceutical drug distributors must turn over records of shipments made to West Virginia pharmacies during the last five years.
Thompson’s decision came in a lawsuit filed last year by former Attorney General Darrell McGraw that accused the companies of shipping excessive amounts of prescription painkiller to pharmacies in southern West Virginia. An attorney working for the Attorney General’s Office has argued that companies either knew or should have known that they “were sending controlled substances to the state of West Virginia that were not being used for legitimate purposes.” The companies had resisted releasing the information, but the judge ordered them to turn over the shipping records of 20 specific prescription medications within 30 days.
Learning about those shipments will give a better picture of whether the volumes of drugs were reasonable for serving West Virginians or of such magnitude that the companies contributed significantly to the state’s drug abuse problem. Either way, the pharmaceutical companies face more accountability, which is a step forward.
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