Albany action to track prescription painkillers is overdue

Oxycodone tablets being dispensed in a pharmacy. (Jan. Oxycodone tablets being dispensed in a pharmacy. (Jan. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

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The arrest of a Baldwin pharmacist this week on charges of filling hundreds of fake prescriptions for narcotic painkillers has put the opiate epidemic back in the news. And since one of the pharmacist's customers is accused of driving under the influence of drugs, killing a woman who was mowing her lawn, attention is being paid. Other casualties are mounting, too; action is overdue.

A tightly regulated, workable system to track prescriptions for dangerous narcotics is sorely needed in New York State. To make that system function, doctors' offices and pharmacists must be required to access it every time they dispense highly sought and highly useful drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone. The system should ensure that patients aren't getting the drugs from multiple doctors, or getting them too often, and that the prescriptions are neither stolen nor forged.

Whether that system is built from the ground up or is an improved version of New York's current, badly flawed and rarely utilized database isn't what matters. Whether the law that governs the new safeguards is written by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman or a Senate or Assembly member isn't what matters. Whether the new system is called I-STOP, or YOU-STOP, or something else entirely, isn't what matters.

Except, perhaps, in Albany, where insiders say politics now has this initiative in its grasp.

On Long Island, five innocent people have been shot to death in the last year in pharmacy robberies related to opiate addiction. The drugs are obtained legally and illegally, at the pharmacy or on the street. Since 2008, more than 1.4 million blank prescriptions have been stolen statewide. Painkiller prescriptions rose 82 percent statewide from 2007-10, and admissions to hospitals and treatment centers for narcotics abuse have skyrocketed.

Soon after last year's Medford killings, Schneiderman began pushing I-STOP, short for Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, a bill that would create a real-time database to track prescriptions written for these drugs. Doctors' offices and pharmacists would have to check for problem use before dispensing drugs, and enter a record of the drugs they dispense into the system for others to check.

It is a well-written bill that would create a useful safeguard.

But some doctors' groups have been fighting it fiercely, claiming I-STOP would require physicians to handle administration of the system. In fact, although the initial proposal put the responsibility on doctors, the law was written to allow clerks to do it, a wise improvement. The pharmacy lobby is siding with the doctors, although less adamantly. And politicians are getting caught up in the details, and seemingly, in who gets the credit for a new law.

Whether the new system could be best created by building on the old one or starting fresh is a matter best settled by computer experts, not politicians. Hearings that clarify the answer would help. If the governor or legislators can improve on Schneiderman's vision, they should do so quickly, so the best possible bill can be passed quickly.

Prescription drug abuse is a growing epidemic and the costs are mounting. Progress in addressing it shouldn't be stymied by politics.

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