State health official says crisis is 'winnable battle'
AURORA – Statistics about the nation’s problem of painkiller drug abuse were easy to come by at the Colorado Prescription Drug Abuse Forum Nov. 10, hosted by the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Anschutz Medical Campus. More than 100 people attended the all-day forum in the Trivisible Room in Research II.
During the forum, State Sen. Irene Aguilar held up a recent issue of the American Medical Association newsletter featuring a front-page story noting that 170,000 Medicare patients are doctor ‘shopping’ for the powerful painkillers. “We need to see this is a widespread problem, and it’s not just our young,” said Aguilar, who is also a physician. “In many cases, it’s our elderly and disabled.”
The problem of patients doctor shopping for drugs is being addressed in Colorado by the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. The database shows a patient’s history of prescriptions, thereby revealing whether the patient may be abusing the medications by going to multiple doctors.
In 2009, more than twice as many people in Colorado died from prescription drug abuse, 445, than from drunk-driving related crashes, 158. Nationally, almost 15,000 people died from prescription painkillers in 2008 — more than three times the number in 1999.
Aguilar participated in a discussion on “How Will Colorado Respond?” to the prescription drug epidemic, which is the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem. Other panel members were Karla Maraccini, director of community partnerships in Gov. Hickenlooper’s office; Chris Urbina, MD, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; and David Schiller, assistant special agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver Field Division.
Aguilar spoke specifically about prescription drug abuse in Colorado and the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a piece of legislation she has sponsored; Maraccini talked about statewide community efforts to address the problem; Urbina addressed the affects to water supplies and the environment from improper disposal of prescription drugs; and Schiller talked about the DEA’s Take-Back Initiatives both nationally and in Colorado.
The Take-Back programs offer insight into just how large the prescription drug problem is: in three take-back events in Colorado, where people are encouraged to drop-off their unused prescription drugs, officers collected 18 tons of drugs. On the Anschutz Campus alone, the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences collected nearly 2,000 pounds of medications during two of these events. Nationally, the program has collected almost 1 million pounds in three years, Schiller said.
Insurance policies contribute to the prescription drug problem, Aguilar said. Fewer insurance companies are covering treatments for chronic pain, even to the point of dropping people who suffer from non-malignant chronic pain.
“In this tough position as a doctor you have someone sitting there who walks with a cane and whose wife says he’s always in pain,” Aguilar said. “And you have nothing else to offer them — it becomes a trap of sorts.”
On the matter of proper disposal of prescription drugs, an audience member asked why not have pharmacies be the drop-offs for the return of unused medications.
Urbina responded that this approach has a couple problems. One is that the pharmacies don’t want to have sole responsibility for the disposal of the drugs, and another is the high cost of handling the collections.
That’s why take-back programs such as the one recently sponsored through the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences partner with the DEA and other stakeholders, Urbina said.