Kentucky is making progress in curbing an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, Attorney General Jack Conway told political leaders from across the nation this week.
Conway briefed the National Governor’s Association Policy Academy on Reducing Prescription Drug Abuse about Kentucky’s efforts, which include closely monitoring the prescribing practices of physicians and holding the pharmaceutical companies that make widely abused painkillers accountable.
Speaking via a video link from the Capitol, Conway touted a law passed by the Legislature last year that requires most doctors to use a computerized prescription monitoring system, which can easily spot “gross deviations” from normal prescribing practices. Those deviations are flagged and sent to the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure and to law enforcement authorities for review.
That, Conway said, is important in a state where more people die from prescription overdose than in car crashes, even though it has proven controversial and will likely face some tweaks in the state Legislature this year.
Some doctors have objected to the oversight, even though Conway insists they don’t come under review unless they prescribe inordinate amounts of painkillers.
“I want to assure the doctors … that there is not a snooping operation going on,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many doctors I talk to who are under the impression that somehow I personally sit up until the wee hours of every morning looking at every single prescription that they write or their day’s tally for what they write. That’s not the way it works. … There has to be an observed gross deviation or disturbing trend before it’s even put on our plate for examination.”
Both Conway and Gov. Steve Beshear expressed a willingness to tweak Kentucky’s prescription drug law this year to appease doctors who complain that some of the requirements could needlessly delay medications to people suffering from chronic pain, including the elderly.
Beshear acknowledged some “the bumps in the road,” but said they are being smoothed out.
Conway said some physicians, including oncologists, already are exempt from the monitoring requirements. “If there are other commonsense exemptions that will allow doctors to be more efficient, I think they’ll find willing partners in the policy process in Frankfort,” he said.
Conway said Kentuckians in years past have been prescribed massive amounts of painkillers by in-state and out-of-state doctors. He said enough hydrocodone prescriptions have been written to administer some 50 doses to all of Kentucky’s 4.3 million residents. But, in the past year, he said Kentucky has seen a 16 percent drop in the amount of hydrocodone and oxycodone prescriptions.
“We’ve lost a generation of people to prescription pill abuse,” he said. “It’s a problem that has affected every family in the commonwealth, just about, as far as I can see.”
Conway cited the arrest Monday of pain management clinic owner Ernest William Singleton of Washington County on drug and money laundering charges as evidence that Kentucky is taking the problem seriously.
And Conway said Kentucky officials will get a chance to pursue a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful painkiller Oxycontin. Conway’s office won a court ruling pushing a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma back from New York to Kentucky’s Appalachian region where drug abuse is rampant and where the litigation originated.
Kentucky sued Purdue Pharma in 2007 seeking reimbursement of money spent on law enforcement, drug treatment programs and Medicaid prescriptions. Kentucky officials accused Purdue Pharma of falsely promoting Oxycontin, the brand name for oxycodone, to health care providers as less addictive and less likely to cause withdrawal than other pain medications.
Purdue Pharma moved the case to federal court in eastern Kentucky, then to southern New York, citing federal issues involved in the litigation, before an appeals panel ordered it back to Pikeville. Purdue Pharma has said it intends to “vigorously defend this action on the merits, and we expect to prevail.”
By 2000, Oxycontin abuse was on the rise. Police blamed the drug for hundreds of deaths, and in 2007 a federal judge ordered Purdue and three of its executives to pay a $634.5 million fine for misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction.
Purdue has denied misleading consumers. A company executive said in an affidavit that the company had sold more than $5 million worth of the drug in Kentucky between January 2006 and August 2007, but denied that Purdue Pharma did anything illegal.
“We’re going to be going after them aggressively, and we are going make them face a Pike County jury regarding the true addictive nature of Oxycontin,” Conway said. “I look forward to that day in court, and hopefully, whatever recovery we get, we can put toward treatment.”