ALBANY -- State lawmakers passed a bill Monday that will dramatically change how New York tracks narcotic painkillers, nearly a year after four people were murdered at a Medford pharmacy during an oxycodone robbery that made prescription drug abuse a statewide issue.
In emotional proceedings filled with tears from family members of overdose victims, the Senate and Assembly each unanimously passed the measure, which they say will crack down on "doctor shopping," the practice of going from doctor to doctor, and pharmacy to pharmacy to amass opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
"This will be the signature piece of legislation for this session," Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) declared, referring to the 2012 legislative session. "This will help close the door on the rampant abuse of prescription drugs."
The bill will require "real time" updates of a state database every time a doctor prescribes a controlled substance and every time a pharmacist dispenses it. Currently, the state drug monitoring database is updated roughly every 45 days and pharmacists have no access.
It would also mandate -- for the first time -- that physicians participate in the tracking system and consult it before prescribing controlled substances. Their participation now is voluntary. And it would make New York one of the first states to move to an all-electronic prescription system for controlled substances.
Lawmakers said they were responding to a wave of skyrocketing prescriptions, pharmacy robberies, prescription thefts and drug-related deaths. Repeatedly, they referred to last year's Father's Day shootings in which David Laffer killed two employees and two patrons of Haven Drugs in Medford and stole 11,000 hydrocodone pills. Laffer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. His wife, Melinda Brady, who drove Laffer, received a 25-year sentence.
Lawmakers called the slayings a catalyst. "The tragedy in Medford brought to life how out of control this epidemic of prescription-drug abuse has become," said Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), who represents Medford.
As Murray spoke, relatives of overdose victims from Long Island and Buffalo clustered at the back of the Assembly chamber late in the afternoon to await the final vote. (The Senate had acted earlier, voting 58-0.)
They clutched hands, squeezed shoulders and dabbed at tears -- a sergeant-at-arms passed around a box of tissues. As the unanimous vote was announced, they lifted their camera phones to photograph the 116 green lights indicating "yes" votes displayed on the tally board.
They applauded. And everyone else in the chamber applauded, too.
"I think we were all thinking the same thing," said Teri Kroll, of Lindenhurst, whose 23-year-old son died of an overdose in 2009. "We're thinking our boys and girls are standing behind us, making this happen."
Noting that it was 1,012 days since her son died, she said: "On a day like this, it's a weird feeling. It's not happy. It's not sad. It's just that you hope it makes a difference for someone else's kid."
Maria Basmas of Long Beach said she was thinking of Christopher, her 29-year-old son who died of an oxycodone overdose in 2011. She said he battled addiction before his death.
"Leading up to it, he was telling me: 'Mommy, how did I get into this? How do I get out of this?' " she said. "I'm doing this in his name."
The issue gained even more traction in January when state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reported that prescriptions for oxycodone had ballooned 82 percent across New York from 2007 to 2010. Statewide, the number of prescriptions issued annually for all narcotic painkillers grew 36 percent, from 16.6 million to 22.5 million -- roughly 3 million more prescriptions than New York State residents.
He also found that between 2004 and 2009, the number of deaths due to the toxic effects of prescription opioids more than tripled in Nassau County.
With the legislature fast approaching a June 21 adjournment, legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced agreement on the new tracking system last week. The powerful Medical Society of New York State, the lobby representing physicians, opposed the new system as an administrative burden. Schneiderman said the "real time" approach would make New York a "national model."
Officials acknowledge it could take up to 12 months before "real time" tracking becomes a reality. Making the transition will require overhauling computer programs, promulgating numerous state regulations, reclassifying certain drugs, creating a safe disposal program and setting up continuing education opportunities for medical professionals, officials said. Electronic prescriptions, which would make database updates automatic, won't be online until December 2014.