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Editorial: Pain-pill tracking will help

Oxycodone 30-mg. tablets are dispensed in a pharmacy

Oxycodone 30-mg. tablets are dispensed in a pharmacy in Melville (Jan. 12, 2012). Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

The urgent need for a new system to control narcotic painkillers in New York is obvious enough.

The first anniversary of a pharmacy shooting that left four people dead in Medford at the hands of addict and gunman David Laffer is just two weeks away. News stories since have chronicled pharmacy robberies, more shooting deaths and terrible tales of addiction. In-depth reports have shown prescriptions for painkillers and rehabilitation and hospital stays skyrocketing. And a staggering 1.4 million blank prescription forms have been stolen statewide since 2008.

The urgency of the situation was again emphasized Wednesday morning with the news that federal and state prosecutors had charged 98 people, including doctors, patients and dealers, with crimes connected to prescription drug trafficking in New York City and on Long Island. Those charged include a doctor accused of having written 5,000 oxycodone prescriptions from 2009 through 2011 for patients who were known addicts, and a patient who was able to get prescriptions for 1,800 painkillers from eight different doctors in less than a month.

The new system -- assuming the agreement announced Tuesday becomes law -- will replace a state tracking system for narcotics that is updated only every 45 days, which pharmacists can't access and which doctors often ignore. The new system will track prescriptions in real time, must be checked by doctors' offices before narcotics are prescribed, and can be accessed by both pharmacists and state law enforcement.

The legislation will also demand that within two years, paper prescriptions disappear in the state and all drugs are prescribed by computer, making New York the first state with such a system. Automatic refills of many addictive drugs will also be eliminated, and the state will oversee a safe disposal program for unused medications.

The plan, often called I-STOP, or the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act, is largely the brainchild of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has fought tenaciously for it over most of this past year. It was also helped tremendously by the support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and leaders in the Senate and Assembly who expanded its reach and got the deal done. Resistance, mostly from the Medical Society of New York State, a physicians' lobbying group, seems to have abated. The group faced overwhelming pressure to accept the plan, and was mollified by assurances from lawmakers that appropriate office staff members, and not just the doctors themselves, would be allowed to enter and receive data from the system.

Studies show caution in prescribing opiates, and often, substituting anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, can prevent patients from becoming dependent and stymie addicts on the hunt for drugs. And this alternative approach can also help many patients recover more quickly from their injuries and ailments.

The tracking agreement seems to contain nearly every improvement that's been called for, and has support from every party involved. Assuming the final legislation is as good as the promises, there will be reason for hope. The problem is far from solved, but the tools in the fight are about to improve dramatically.

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