It could become increasingly difficult for addicts and other users to get their hands on pain pills and other drugs that are sold, legally, in pharmacies located in New Jersey -- and in a growing number of nearby states -- thanks to separate initiatives highlighted by public officials on Tuesday.
Gov. Chris Christie announced a partnership with New York State that will allow doctors across the Hudson River to access the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, a five-year-old database that enables physicians to check a patient’s history of drug use before prescribing medicines; pharmacies also update the system once pills are dispensed. The state created a similar partnership with Delaware and Connecticut in 2014 and has since granted access to providers in Rhode Island, Virginia, Minnesota and South Carolina.
During an independent event at Boyt Drugs, in Metuchen, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth) championed a measure to reduce the number of unused pain pills in public circulation by permitting patients, doctors, or pharmacists to request that an opioid prescription be filled only partially at first. The bill is part of package of legislation designed to combat drug addiction. Pallone said the measures have bipartisan support and are likely to be approved in committee on Wednesday and by the full House of Representatives later this spring.
The developments reflect the growing focus, in New Jersey and nationwide, on the impact drug addiction is having on families and communities. Experts say that all too often these addictions develop after patients are prescribed pain pills following an accident or surgery, then get hooked on the powerful narcotics and eventually turn to street drugs like heroin, which is stronger and cheaper than pills.
“In so many cases a friend or relative [of the patient] ends up getting the pills,” Pallone said, “and that’s how they start getting addicted.”
More than 184,000 Garden State residents have been admitted treatment facilities for heroin or opioid abuse since 2010, his office said, and more than 5,000 heroin-related deaths have been reported since 2004.
Experts agree that reducing addiction requires, among other things, a comprehensive system to track the prescription and distribution of controlled substances and curb the flow of these drugs to buyers who don’t have a legitimate medical need. New Jersey launched itsin 2011 and the database now contains nearly 59 million records of controlled substances that have been prescribed by doctors or dispensed by pharmacies.
Physicians are to use the information in the database to supplement their own evaluation of the patient and also to document the patient’s compliance with the prescription’s requirements.“When prescribers or pharmacists identify a patient as potentially having an issue of concern regarding drug use, they are encouraged to help the patient locate assistance and take any other action the prescriber or pharmacist deems appropriate,” the website states.
“By tracking the sale of prescription opioids across our state lines, doctors and prescribers in New Jersey and New York can work together to identify addicts seeking new places to feed their devastating habit,” Christie said in a statement announcing the agreement.
The move is designed to limit the ability of residents, who may be blocked from buying drugs here, to travel to the Empire State to obtain pills for illegal use or distribution back home.
“With New York now linked to our prescription monitoring system, individuals looking to profit from prescription drug abuse won’t be able to escape detection simply by crossing the Hudson River,” added Steve Lee, acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the PMP.
The addition of New York to the PMP was welcome news to Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the health committee and a longtime advocate for addiction services, who has worked to fine-tune the database system.
“It is a very meaningful expansion and one more important piece of the prevention puzzle,” he said. “Hopefully, the Pennsylvania legislature and governor will finally establish their monitoring program that will allow us to have a triangulated common border system.”
Acting Attorney General Robert Lougy also praised the partnership with New York, which he said, “adds tremendous power” to the database and its reach. The PMP is also used by law enforcement officials to track the diversion of pain meds for illegal sale and has helped identify -- and eventually prosecute -- healthcare workers involved with “pill mills” that distribute drugs with little concern for public safety, the statement said.
After the Metuchen event, Pallone also praised the governor’s work to grow the PMP’s territory, which he said is particularly important for New Jersey, where residents frequently travel to New York and Philadelphia.
“It’s just so easy to go back and forth,” he said.
But, while some efforts to address addiction can succeed on a state or local level, a program developed through federal measures provides a much broader benefit -- and may have other advantages.
“We need an electronic surveillance system that crosses state lines,” Pallone said. “But obviously we want these things to be national, and sometimes these things enter into interstate commerce” issues, which are federal by jurisdiction.
Pallone is also calling for a federal interagency task force to review and update pain management best practices and has sponsored several measures designed to modernize the opiate addiction process. Another measure, which is already law in New Jersey, would prohibit drug stores from selling cough medicines with a common substance called DXM to anyone under 18. The syrup is becoming popular among teens looking for a cheap way to get high. Pallone was joined by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Union), who has sponsored similar legislation on the state level, Martin Miller of the Garden State Pharmacy Owners, and Gerard Bargoud, who owns the Metuchen drugstore.