Tighten up opiate prescriptions, N.J. task force says

    A pharmacist checks on a prescription for a patient behind the counter (Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo, file)

    A pharmacist checks on a prescription for a patient behind the counter (Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo, file)

    After two years of work, the New Jersey task force charged with investigating the state’s opiate abuse problem has recommended tighter controls on prescriptions and education programs aimed at reducing addiction.

    The task force’s 88-page report highlights the causes of a surge in opiate abuse, especially among teens and young adults, and makes more than 20 recommendations to begin reversing the trend.

    The report calls for making the Prescription Management Program, or PMP, mandatory, requiring all opioid prescriptions to be entered into a statewide database. The system allows doctors to check whether patients have already visited other physicians to get pills, a practice known as “doctor shopping.”

    Task Force Chairman Frank Greenagel, Jr. said less than 20 percent of prescriptions are entered under the current voluntary program, and that the nine states that have made such programs compulsory have seen good results.

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    “What we want to do is really, to make this the PMP with some teeth,” said Greenagel. “What that will do is it will really reduce the amount of pills out there, reduce the amount of pills that people are abusing, and reduce the amount of pills that people are selling.”

    The role of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, in the current opiate epidemic cannot be overstated, the report found. Greenagel said the problem exploded after the drugs became common in the 1990s — and patients became hooked.

    “When the prescription runs out and they can’t get any more, they’re now willing to try something different, especially if it costs a whole lot less,” said Greenagel.

    That cheaper alternative is heroin. The report notes that inexpensive, highly pure heroin is especially easy to find in New Jersey.

    Other recommendations focus on stopping opiate addiction before it starts, including a new public awareness campaign and updated educational programs in schools to highlight the dangers of painkillers. The task force also suggests the state legislature consider major reforms to the insurance industry.

    “They’re denying coverage, or, if they actually do cover someone, they often cut that coverage short after a limited amount of time,” said Greenagel.

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