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U.S. needs prescription drug monitoring

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Prescription drug abuse is frighteningly commonplace in the United States, where approximately 80 percent of the world’s pain pills being consumed in the United States and death tolls from prescription drug overdose on the rise. The Food and Drug Administration’s recent move to implement restrictions on prescription painkillers is a necessity and could not come at a more crucial time — approximately 7 million Americans are addicted to prescription medication. From 1999 to 2010, deaths involving prescription medications have quadrupled in the United States, doubling in 29 states alone.

The problem with painkillers is rooted in their accessibility and monitoring them is extremely ineffective. Over 100 million prescriptions for painkillers are given every year. A visit to the emergency room or doctor’s office with the right complaint — for example, a migraine — can result in a prescription for OxyContin. And Vicodin is given readily to patients who have just had their wisdom teeth extracted. While many argue that painkillers should be easily available to patients who need them, such availability can lead to abuse.

Monitoring programs for prescription drugs do exist. They’ve been implemented in almost every state and are able to discover misuse by flagging whether or not a patient has visited multiple doctors for one prescription. However, these programs are rarely used. Out of the 49 states that have monitoring systems, only 16 require doctor’s offices, clinics and hospitals to participate.

This is where FDA restrictions will be truly beneficial. The restrictions will re-categorize Vicodin and other powerful prescription painkillers that contain opioid hydrocodone as Schedule II drugs instead of Schedule III. This allows for the painkillers to be prescribed much less readily, and monitoring them requires much more involvement. These new rules limit the amount a doctor can give a patient, in a 90-day supply. When refilling under the restrictions, the patient must visit both the doctor’s office and the pharmacy, so that doctor-patient prescription transactions can be recorded and abuse can be detected.

The question no longer rests in the beneficial nature of the restrictions, but rather in why it took so long for the FDA to take serious action. There have been attempts at prescription drug reform since 1999. While such restrictions are long overdue, their importance hasn’t diminished. These measures will play a crucial role in calming the swell of addiction and overdoses. In the Untied States, one person dies of a prescription drug overdose every 19 minutes. Let’s not allow that number to rise.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 6 print edition. Lena Rawley is a contributing columnist. Email her at [email protected]

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