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NJ launches program to fight prescription drug abuse

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Now that Mother’s Little Helper has become Missy’s Widespread Habit, New Jersey authorities have launched an initiative that aims to lock up more drug abusers — only not the kind who snort black tar or hit the crack pipe.

According to the state’s new attorney general, an “apparently abusive pattern” of addicts buying large amounts of prescription drugs has come to light, and a campaign to turn the tide in the Garden State is already under way.

“The apparently abusive pattern of purchasing drugs was revealed this month – and the discovery was made thanks to the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program,” says a release issued Wednesday by state Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa’s office.

The “NJPMP,” as the monitoring program is called, is a “powerful new tool in the [s]tate’s fight against the abuse and diversion of prescription drugs, and the often-heavy reimbursement costs of fraudulently-obtained prescription medication borne by health insurance companies, the [s]tate, and[,] ultimately[,] taxpayers,” the release says.

No one could say whether this, in turn, would help reduce health care premiums charged by the insurance companies. However, it clearly puts reliable methods in place to more easily detect not only those who are abusing the meds but those who are prescribing and, ultimately, selling them.

Bergen County has seen its own examples in recent arrests: Emerson podiatrist charged with running Oxy prescription mill

“We all know that prescription medication, when used properly, can alleviate pain and illness. The darker, lesser-known side of prescription medication is that, when abused, it can be just as dangerous, addictive, and deadly as heroin,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, the director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

“Nationwide surveys show that many still mistakenly believe prescription medication is harmless – and this misperception is fueling a nationwide epidemic that’s sending thousands of New Jerseyans into addiction treatment centers each year, and 40 Americans to the grave each day,” he added. “The NJPMP is an important tool in our statewide effort to halt the soaring problem of prescription drug abuse and diversion.”

According to Wednesday’s news release:

“[From] November 3 [to] December 7, 2011, a single patient obtained a four-month supply of oxycodone and methadone by presenting prescriptions, now believed to be forged, to three New Jersey pharmacies on a total of 14 occasions. The patient circumvented the safeguards that pharmacies and insurance carriers use to spot such abuse by spreading out his visits [among] the pharmacies, and by paying with cash in some instances and by insurance in others.

As a result, in one month the individual obtained a total of 2,520 doses of highly addictive, narcotic medications classified as Controlled Dangerous Substances.” (Commonly known as CDS.)

The single abuser isn’t identified, nor are any of the pharmacies — or even the part of the state they’re located in. That’s because the investigation is still active, a spokesman told CLIFFVIEW PILOT.

He/she also could be dead.

“Every day,” the release says, “40 Americans die from abusing narcotic prescription painkillers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” (At last count, there were nearly 313 million.)

Prescription drug-abuse deaths “have more than tripled in the past decade and now kill more people in the U.S. than heroin and cocaine combined,” it says.

You want more proof?

Two years ago, New Jersey-licensed substance abuse treatments programs reported 7,238 admissions, he said. According to Chiesa’s public information office, that number “represents represents a striking 230 percent increase from 2005, according to statewide statistics collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

“Opioid pain medication abuse accounts for the most common poisonings treated in emergency departments and nearly 1 million Americans are currently addicted to some type of opiate – costing insurance companies, according to some reports, upwards of $75.5 million a year,” the release adds.

The New Jersey State Commission of Investigation in June 2011 reported that “a growing number of young people are abusing prescription drugs, and noted a significant trend in which young people who became addicted to painkillers eventually turned to heroin as a cheaper substitute,” state authorities said Wednesday.

The “NJPMP” has been collecting detailed data from 2,000 pharmacies statewide every 15 days for a little over four months on “all prescription sales of drugs classified as Controlled Dangerous Substances (CDS) and Human Growth Hormone (HGH),” the release says. Rough estimate: about 4 million scripts dispensed since Sept. 1.

The result is “a searchable database that includes detailed information on the sale of these high-risk drugs when they are dispensed in outpatient settings in New Jersey, or by out-of-state pharmacies dispensing into New Jersey.

“The information on each transaction includes, among other things: the patient’s name and date of birth; the dates at which the prescription was written and the drug was dispensed; the name, quantity, and strength of the medication; the method of payment for the medication; and the identities of the prescriber and pharmacy.

“The database will help the Division of Consumer Affairs and other law enforcement agencies identify and investigate individuals and businesses suspected of fraudulently diverting controlled drugs for abuse. By highlighting the location, nature, and extent of abuse throughout the state, the information collected will also better inform our healthcare initiatives and addiction-treatment efforts.

“Patient information in the database is kept confidential in compliance with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and Privacy and Security Rules. Under HIPAA and the State law that establishes the NJPMP, the Division of Consumer Affairs on January 4, 2012, began allowing State-licensed prescribers and pharmacists to obtain free accounts to access and search the database through a secure website.

“Registered practitioners must certify they are seeking data only for the purpose of providing healthcare to current patients. Any practitioners who access or share NJPMP data for any other purpose are subject to civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each offense, and disciplinary action by the practitioner’s professional licensing board.

“The Division of Consumer Affairs will also provide case-specific NJPMP information to law enforcement agencies, pursuant to grand jury subpoenas or court orders and certifications that the information is requested for a bona fide investigation of a specific practitioner or patient. In addition, the Division is required to notify law enforcement agencies or professional licensing boards if the Division determines a prescriber, pharmacist, or patient may have violated the law or committed a breach of prescribers’ or pharmacists’ standards of practice.”

The program announced today is “the first phase of a three-phase process during which the NJPMP will be further enhanced and expanded, culminating in approximately May 2012,” the release says.

“In addition to its current application for basic searches of patient- or prescriber-specific information, the Division of Consumer Affairs is developing enhancements that will enable more complex, statistical analyses,” it says. “When fully expanded, the NJPMP will generate reports on geographical areas with unusual CDS or HGH prescription activity during a specific time frame; identify practitioners in each county who prescribed the largest quantities of a specific drug during a given time period; and provide other information that can help identify and compare troubling patterns of CDS and HGH activity.”

The release says NJPMP is but one component of the Division of Consumer Affairs’ “comprehensive effort to halt the diversion and abuse of prescription drugs,” which includes:

  • “Enhanced enforcement initiatives, including a reorganization of and additional staffing for the Division’s Enforcement Bureau, which investigates prescription drug diversion cases on behalf of the State Board of Medical Examiners, Board of Pharmacy, and New Jersey’s other healthcare-related professional licensing boards.

  • “Effecting a reduction in supply, by encouraging practitioners to prescribe only the amount of medication needed for treatment; working with pharmacies to develop a set of statewide best practices for drug security; and encouraging parents and grandparents to maintain their medication securely within the home, and to dispose of their unwanted medications safely and responsibly through Project Medicine Drop, a pilot program providing New Jerseyans medication disposal opportunities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  • “Educating constituencies, including an outreach campaign for prescribers, pharmacists, parents, and teenagers, about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and ways to prevent abuse.

  • “Enabling recovery for persons struggling with addiction by advancing measures that will facilitate abusers’ access to treatment and the treatment community’s access to patient-specific prescription information.”

High levels of prescribing and dispensing of controlled drugs are not necessarily indicators of illegal activity or drug abuse, Chiesa made sure to note.

“While working to stop abuse, we must remain mindful of the legitimate uses for medication and ensure practitioners are empowered to meet their patients’ healthcare needs,” he said.

According to the release: “Certain medical practices, such as those that specialize in pain management, prescribe larger amounts of CDS medications than others during the normal course of providing patient care. The Division’s NJPMP Administrator will work with investigators from the Division’s Enforcement Bureau to analyze the information behind NJPMP data reports.”


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