Pennsylvania could consider new state regulations to ensure all medical and dental students are taught safe addiction and pain management options before they’re licensed to practice, says Gov. Tom Wolf.
Such a measure, Wolf said, could reduce the incidents of doctors over-prescribing painkillers and opioids, which sometimes lead to fatal drug overdoses – a growing problem nationally. In Pennsylvania and at least half of all other states, drug overdose deaths have overtaken the number of car-accident fatalities, according to a study by the Trust for America’s Health.
With more than 2,400 deaths annually, Pennsylvania ranks 9th in the country for highest rate of overdose fatalities, that study found.
Centre County, Pennsylvania, ranks low on the list of areas with fatal drug overdoses, with 13 deaths in 2014, according to the most recent data available from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia Field Division. The areas most affected are counties in Pennsylvania’s southeastern corner, near Philadelphia, York, Montgomery and Chester.
President Barack Obama has requested $1 billion in new federal funding to increase treatment access for people addicted to prescription drugs and heroin. Most of that money would go directly to states with the most people who need addiction treatment.
Wolf’s remarks Monday in Washington, D.C., about what additional steps his state can take to curb the problem came during a discussion with reporters, White House drug control policy Director Michael Botticelli and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. Massachusetts already requires its medical schools to teach future doctors about the potential dangers of prescription opioids, including generic painkillers.
That measure – aimed at educating medical and dental school students before they start prescribing highly addictive medicines – is an idea Wolf says he’s taking back to Harrisburg when he returns Tuesday. Wolf, a Democrat, was in Washington over the weekend for the National Governors Association winter meeting.
“Pennsylvania could play a big role,” he said, referring to the large numbers of medical students and interns who come through the state’s hospitals and colleges each year. Doctors who write prescriptions, Wolf said, play a critical role in whether patients become addicted to painkillers and eventually turn to other drugs, such as heroin.
Nearly 20 percent of all doctors in the United States, Wolf said, come through Philadelphia, including those who attend school and complete their residency training in the state’s hospitals or clinics. According to Penn State University, nearly one in six U.S. medical school applicants applies to its College of Medicine.
The education piece to curb the abuse of prescription pills – sometimes considered a gateway drug to heroin – is one part of what Pennsylvania could do, Wolf said. Already, he said, his state has policies and programs in place to address the issue.
For example, this summer, Pennsylvania will roll out an expanded version of the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, a database system used to track how often and from where people legally obtain opioid drugs. Experts say painkillers are often over-prescribed to patients, who then become addicted or dependent. The dependency has led to more patients hopping from doctor to doctor in search of a new prescription or turning to illegal drugs, such as heroin.
Pennsylvania is poised to spend millions on fighting the “disease” of addiction, and more federal funding would help, Gov. Tom Wolf said.
Every state, except Missouri, has some type of prescription-monitoring system. In Pennsylvania, a law was passed in 2014 to beef up the database so that doctors and pharmacists, not just law enforcement, have access to the patient information.
The goal is to catch “doctor-shopping,” said state Sen. Pat Vance, a Republican, who introduced the legislation two years ago to grow the monitoring program. Until Pennsylvania lawmakers approve a budget, it’s unclear whether Wolf will get the $2.1 million he’s asked for to fund the expanded database.
Until then, Vance said, Pennsylvania is using federal grants to jump-start the program.
Other efforts include a statewide program in which willing pharmacies provide for free a life-saving medication, called naxolone, which is used to reverse dangerous overdoses that are usually fatal. The naxolone general prescription is paid for through the state by insurance companies, Wolf said.
Wolf also wants Pennsylvania to look into whether it needs a law limiting the amount of opioids or painkillers that can be given to first-time patients with injuries. In Massachusetts, Baker said, lawmakers are considering a measure to impose 3-day or 1-week limits for first-time prescriptions.
President Barack Obama has requested $1 billion in new federal funding over the next two years to increase treatment access for people addicted to prescription drugs and heroin. Most of that money would go directly to states with the most people who need addiction treatment. The funds first have to be approved by Congress.
Pennsylvania, Wolf said, is poised to spend millions fighting what he calls the “disease” of addiction. More federal funding, he said, would help.