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Act to stop painkiller epidemic

The prescription medicine OxyContin (Aug. 21, 2001)

The prescription medicine OxyContin (Aug. 21, 2001) Photo Credit: Getty Images

The pharmacy shootings that left five innocents and one robber dead on Long Island in the past six months are the dramatic tragedies, the ones in which the heartache is publicized. Less noticed are the hundreds of casualties of a growing prescription painkiller problem that has truly earned the label "epidemic."

From 2007 to 2010, prescriptions for oxycodone statewide rose by 82 percent. Life hasn't gotten 82 percent more painful in three years.

The effects of this increase are clear. Crisis admissions to hospitals and treatment centers for narcotics abuse are up 57 percent in Nassau County and 40 percent in Suffolk. Accidental overdose deaths have exploded statewide, but particularly in Nassau, where they tripled in six years. Prescription painkillers now end more lives on Long Island than heroin.

We are seeing spiraling addiction in people who fill these prescriptions legally and illegally at pharmacies, as well as those who buy the pills on the street. It's a serious, long-term problem that demands a comprehensive, multipronged plan to bring under control.

I-STOP, or Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, is a statewide database advocated by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that would keep real-time track of narcotics prescriptions, as well as which doctors wrote them and which drugstores filled them. Doctors and pharmacists would be required to check I-STOP before providing these drugs. I-STOP is needed so badly because the state's current tracking system is used by very few health professionals -- and it's hard to blame them. It's a porous and unworkable setup that doesn't update data quickly or do much to identify problem patients. It also offers no way for pharmacists to tell if prescriptions are legitimate, an enormous issue, considering that as many as 1.4 million blank prescription forms have been stolen and distributed in and around New York City since 2008. The failure of the current tracking system and the plethora of stolen prescription forms were first reported by Newsday.

Beyond improved tracking, some doctors must change their mentality. While many are careful about prescribing, the numbers indicate plenty are not, and the worst offenders appear to be shockingly reckless in their distribution of these powerful drugs.

As reported by Newsday, Medford drugstore killer David Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady, were prescribed more than 12,000 pain pills from dozens of doctors in the four years before the killings. Further investigation of some of those doctors appears to indicate that their entire practice consisted of writing narcotics prescriptions, sometimes hundreds per week. Such doctors can't be allowed to practice in that manner, and I-STOP would help curb them.

But a shift in thinking on the part of some well-intentioned doctors, and their patients, is just as crucial. Clearly, there are people with serious and sometimes chronic pain who could not function without these powerful, and helpful, medications. Yet high-powered opiates shouldn't be the first defense against every ache. Dispensing such narcotics so freely can result in widespread addiction and increases the narcotics available to those who seek them to get high.

The legislature should approve I-STOP. The rest of us must become aware of just how destructive these drugs can be.