States pass laws to keep patients from “doctor shopping” for drugs

Nearly 15,000 people die from prescription drug overdose and abuse every year. It reportedly takes about a month to become addicted to certain substances. An assortment of state laws is attempting to make it harder for patients to gain access to these drugs.

In New Jersey, where there were 1,600 deaths from opioids and heroin in 2015, a new law keeps patients from getting pain killers for more than five days in one prescription.  In 18 other states, there are laws that make doctors who prescribe many controlled substances check databases showing whether the patients are obtaining these drugs elsewhere. About 13 other states also require physician control over these substances, but they are more limited in scope.

While the objective of keeping patients who require pain medication from becoming addicted to narcotics is understandable, the methods of making it happen are not uniform across the country. While opioid users have been known to “cross state lines and travel great distances to illegally obtain prescription drugs,” drug prescribers in most states “do not use the databases — known as prescription drug monitoring programs, or PDMPs,” according to Lenny Bernstein in the Washington Post (“New state rules are forcing opioid prescribers to confront ‘doctor shopping,’” January 14). 

PDMPs enable pharmacists to determine whether someone has recently had a prescription filled elsewhere or whether a drug has been prescribed by multiple doctors, according to drugrehab.org. As the article explained, “If an overlapping prescription is found, then legal repercussions may be pursued. Doctor-shopping is prosecuted as a felony and the person can receive up to five years in prison.”

Some PDMPs are difficult to use. While they exist in 49 states, different states have different requirements for how prescribers use the system and which drugs they must check. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (see The Clinical Scoop, February 27) did not require the development of uniform databases across the country, so doctors can only view the narcotics purchases in their own states.

Additionally, some organizations have concerns about patient privacy. “Records of the prescription medications we take can reveal some of the most private and sensitive information about us,” said the American Civil Liberties Union, which is attempting to require that law enforcement agencies get a warrant in order to gain access to records that track drug prescriptions.

 Scripps News did a five-month investigation that revealed that law enforcement officials were able to obtain “at least 344,921 prescription histories of American citizens between 2014 and 2015 in states that do not require a court-ordered warrant, as per the Fourth Amendment.” Patient privacy advocates are concerned that this practice could become abusive, according to an article in Natural News (“Government is now tracking your medications ... No privacy or escape from tyranny,” Monday, September 12, 2016, by J. D. Heyes).

Legislators need to balance health concerns against privacy issues. They also need to develop uniform laws that make prescription shopping across state lines impossible.

Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer (www.schneiderthewriter.com), a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. She has edited or written for numerous technical publications, as well as serving as a publicist for various medical, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.