Tag Archives: prescription drug abuse

LA Times: While board investigates, doctors’ ‘reckless prescribing’ kills

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

By zeroing in on one particular type of dangerous physician behavior, known as “reckless prescribing,” Los Angeles Times reporters Lisa Girion and Scott Glover were able to draw a powerful link between the state medical board’s inaction and patient death in an investigation titled “Dying for Relief.”

For the piece, reporters reviewed state medical board records and coroner’s files, assembling evidence that “At least 30 patients in Southern California have died of drug overdoses or related causes while their doctors were under investigation for reckless prescribing. The board ultimately sanctioned all but one of those 12 doctors, and some were criminally charged – too late to prevent the deaths.”

For its part, the board has been hit hard by state budget cuts and, the reporters write, is hamstrung because “Unlike medical regulators in other states, it cannot suspend a doctor’s license or prescribing privileges on its own, even to prevent imminent harm.” The resulting lack of oversight has led to pervasive overprescribing and uneven enforcement. For more details and a powerful narrative hook, I strongly recommend reviewing the paper’s brilliantly produced online package.

Fla. database intended to stop prescription drug abuse is largely unused

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

After years of increasing scrutiny as it sat at what appeared to the epicenter of the national prescription painkiller abuse epidemic, Florida implemented a law requiring that every prescription filed for controlled substances such as prescription painkillers be recorded in a statewide database. A year later, Tampa Bay Times reporter John Woodrow Cox has followed up to see what difference the law has made.

The answer appears to be “hardly any.” Because there is no requirement to use the system when writing prescriptions, Cox writes, “the vast majority of medical practitioners have never touched the much-touted database.” He has assembled some damning numbers to back that observation up.

  • Since the system’s inception on Sept. 1, 2011, more than 48 million prescriptions have been written in Florida for controlled substances — that’s about 2.5 for every man, woman and child in the state. Prescribers, however, checked the database before writing just 2 percent of them.
  • Among physicians in the Tampa Bay area permitted by the federal government to prescribe these potent drugs, fewer than one in 12 has ever used the database.
  • A Times reporter surveyed all 91 local pain-management clinics registered with the state and that appeared to be in business. Fewer than half reported using the program. Employees at 46 of the clinics declined to answer questions or did not respond to calls. One acknowledged never using the program.

Cox digs pretty deep into the issue, but in the end it comes down to a simple observation: When it comes to enforcement, there is neither carrot nor stick. Scrupulous voluntary use of the database would only mean less business for the “pill mills” which account for so many of the state’s prescriptions, so they have no incentive to check it and face no punishment for not doing so. The experience of other states indicates that requiring prescribers to reference the database would make it more effective, but such a mandate appears impossible given Florida’s current political climate.

OxyContin’s early poster children: Where are they now?

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

More than a decade into America’s new age of opiates, the long-term effects of the ubiquitous prescription painkillers are starting to be felt on a real, measurable scale. As part of an evolving investigation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MedPage Today, John Fauber and Ellen Gabler drive this home by following up on seven patients – and one physician – featured in an early promotional video for OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

Originally conceived as a teaching aid, the video was ultimately used in a marketing campaign in which Purdue sent it to about 15,000 doctors. A Purdue subsidiary has since paid $634 million in penalties for misbranding OxyContin in its various promotional campaigns but, as the reporters found, the patients who used the drug sometimes paid an even steeper price, as demonstrated by the subsequent lives of the seven “poster children” featured in that video. I’ll let Fauber and Gabler take it from here.

The subjects who spoke glowingly of their experiences with OxyContin in the video 14 years ago offer a case history of sorts.

Two of the seven patients were active opioid abusers when they died. A third became addicted, suffered greatly, and quit after realizing she was headed for an overdose. Three patients still say the drug helped them cope with their pain and improved their quality of life. A seventh patient declined to answer questions.

The doctor who enlisted his patients for the video and played a starring role, now says some of the statements went too far.

Within this broad sketch, the reporters find much room for story and nuance, touching upon everything from the impact of the drug on patients with a history of addiction to the legitimate success stories of patients who had their lives changed by the powerful narcotic. It’s a well-drawn, big-picture portrait of the swath opiates have cut through modern American, told through the lens of a unique and fascinating narrative device.

AP puts numbers on the prescription drug epidemic

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Associated Press’ Chris Hawley has worked through the latest numbers on the prescription painkiller boom, helping to illustrate the ongoing toll the opiod abuse epidemic is taking on traditional hotspots like Appalachia and emerging ones like the American Southwest and parts of New York City. Nationally, numbers continue to hit new heights.

Nationwide, pharmacies received and ultimately dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010, the last year for which statistics are available. That’s enough to give 40 5-mg Percocets and 24 5-mg Vicodins to every person in the United States.

Hawley writes the numbers can be distorted by things like clinics for returning servicemembers, whose ranks have greatly increased in the past decade, as well as by mail-order clinics, but they still paint a detailed picture of where the opiods are going. Absent federal regulation, there is currently only a patchwork of state prescription drug tracking systems, many of which are not fully interoperable, but Hawley’s federal numbers help fill in the gaps.

The AP analysis used drug data collected quarterly by the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System. The DEA tracks shipments sent from distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, practitioners and teaching institutions and then compiles the data using three-digit ZIP codes. Every ZIP code starting with 100-, for example, is lumped together into one figure.

Investigation delves into Wash.’s prescription drug problem

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Everything time we think prescription drug abuse stories have peaked, something comes along to push the story further. This time, InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith sets herself apart by starting from square one and clearly explaining the origins and dimensions of Washington’s particularly nasty drug issues, tracing back each facet of the problem to its source and spotlighting what makes the Evergreen State unique.prescription-drugs

Washington has been one of the hardest hit states in the country, in part because of aggressive prescribing practices. That, coupled with lack of oversight of doctors who over-prescribe, has led to the spectacular run-up in the number of deaths from prescription overdoses.

The backdrop for her work is an epidemic that shows no signs of abating, despite a recently implemented state law Smith calls “a bold attempt to reduce overdose deaths by launching the first-ever dosing limits for doctors and others who prescribe these medicines.”

Prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels throughout the state, and elsewhere in the country, despite lawmakers’ attempts to get a grip on it. Washington now has one of the highest death rates in the nation. Deaths from prescription drug overdoses in this state have skyrocketed nearly twenty-fold since the mid-1990s, and now outstrip those from traffic accidents.

Why caused it to leap so quickly? Smith tracks down several key tipping points. “There’s plenty of blame to go around for what caused the epidemic,” she writes. “Aggressive marketing of opiates by drug companies, nonexistent tracking of overprescribing, lack of insurance coverage for alternative treatments for pain, and demand by patients for quick fixes, to name a few.”

She drills down into many of those causes, with my personal favorites being two key origin stories:

  • How marketing by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma led to relaxed guidelines for chronic pain treatment and a “1999 law specified ‘No disciplinary action will be taken against a practitioner based solely on the quantity and/or frequency of opiates prescribed,'” both of which helped cause a jump in prescriptions.
  • How “the rise in the death rates of Medicaid patients tracks along with the state’s cost-saving decision to move many of its poorest residents to the cheapest, most potent pain reliever available: Methadone.”

See the upper right-hand sidebar for more stories from the six-month investigation.