RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers can save patients’ lives, spare their families and combat an ongoing opioid-abuse crisis by putting tighter controls on physicians and pharmacists who hand out powerful pain-killing medicines, supporters of a drug control bill said Thursday.
The plan announced by Republican lawmakers and new Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein would put new restrictions on medical providers who prescribe and dispense opioid drugs like OxyContin and morphine and limit their public supply. Such drugs carry a high risk of addiction and are often considered a gateway to the use of heroin and other illegal drugs. The bill also includes $20 million over two years for local substance abuse treatment and recovery services.
One of the chief sponsors, Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, said his stepson died in 2007 at age 22 after a fight with drug addiction he said intensified when he was prescribed an opioid following an automobile accident.
“We lost a beautiful vibrant wonderful son to this epidemic,” McInnis said at a Legislative Building news conference. “He was given a vial of these horrid, horrid addictive drugs and he started a downhill spiral that ended up with the loss of his life.”
Nearly 250 heroin deaths were reported in North Carolina in 2014, a more than five-fold increase from 2010, according to state health statistics. Four North Carolina residents die every day from drug and medication overdoses, backers of the bill said. Many more are hospitalized or go to emergency rooms.
“Opioids are tearing families apart all across our state. Too many of our neighbors, co-workers and family members are dying,” Stein said.
The measure would require physicians to log on to the state’s controlled substance database system and examine a patient’s prescription history to prevent overprescribing. Such information could show when abusers go to multiple physicians seeking prescriptions for their favored drug. Doctors would pay a $20 annual fee to keep up the system.
Pharmacists also would be required to register with the system and report controlled substance transactions within 24 hours. Pharmacy registration is essentially encouraged now and transactions now can wait 72 hours. Those who don’t file proper reports could be fined.
Doctors also would have to prescribe controlled substances electronically to reduce fraud. In most instances they would be limited to initially prescribing no more than a five-day supply of a controlled substance for treatment of “acute pain.” This would stop 30-day supplies that bill supporters say can lead to addiction or unused pills left in medicine cabinets for young people to take. State health officials would audit prescriber records.
Bill sponsor Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt and a physician, said some of the restrictions place more “bureaucratic hassle and paperwork” upon doctors, but it’s worth it.
“Our goal here is to save lives, to save families, to save businesses and it is an honorable and laudable and I believe attainable goal that we all must be willing to make sacrifices to achieve,” Murphy said.
The measure also would expand a 2016 law that created a statewide standing order at all pharmacies for access to a prescription drug that can reverse overdoses of opium-based drugs.
The bill would need House and Senate approval before going to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. Cooper’s proposed state budget includes $14 million to treat and combat opioid-related drug abuse and overdoses.
Stein said he would soon convene a task force of law enforcement officials to recommend new criminal charges for opioid drug dealers.
Ethan Buck of Greenville, who began using prescription opioids at age 12, advanced to heroin before becoming homeless and finally getting help. Now 20, Buck attended Thursday’s event and warned drug addiction can happen to anyone no matter their education or status.
“It’s not a disease that discriminates,” Buck said.