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Federal government unveils program to fight prescription drug epidemic

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, left, and Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Howard Koh, announces a federal plan on pain pills.

Associated Press

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, left, and Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Howard Koh, announces a federal plan on pain pills.

The White House unveiled on Tuesday the first ever national plan to fight America's fastest-growing drug problem — the abuse of highly addictive prescription painkillers.

With prescription drug abuse now killing more people than car crashes in Florida and 16 other states, the Obama administration is calling on doctors, drugmakers and law enforcement to fight the epidemic. Officials placed particular emphasis on the Sunshine State's notorious pain clinics offering easy access to dangerous drugs.

They warned the effort will take time. Their goal: decrease prescription drug overdose deaths by 15 percent in five years.

It's an epidemic that has been years in the making. Overdose deaths from prescription drugs hit more than 11,000 in 2007, a four-fold increase in eight years, according to the latest federal figures. That's far more than heroin and cocaine deaths combined.

"The prescription drug abuse epidemic is not a problem that is going to be solved overnight," U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said at a news conference. "But like with any problem, there are common sense steps . . . that we can take to address it."

The administration is urging all 50 states to create prescription drug monitoring programs to help stop patients who go from doctor to doctor, and pharmacy to pharmacy, collecting prescriptions to abuse or sell. Florida is the largest of the 16 states that don't have databases in operation.

The federal plan also calls for more education for doctors who prescribe addictive painkillers and patients who take them. More emphasis would go to safe disposal of unused medications to keep them from young addicts. Children now abuse prescription drugs more than any illegal drug except marijuana, officials said.

Finally, law enforcement would get training and tools to go after those illegally trafficking in prescription drugs.

Kerlikowske, a former St. Petersburg police officer, noted that in Florida, seven people a day die of prescription drug overdoses. The head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration highlighted Operation Pill Nation, which led to the arrests in February of pill mill operators and doctors in South Florida, a taste of actions to come.

The call for every state to implement a prescription drug database comes a week after Gov. Rick Scott dropped his opposition to such a program here. Created in a 2009 law and finally scheduled to begin in December 2010, it has been held up by bureaucratic delays and a protest by the company that lost a bid to run it.

"We are overdue," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the law's lead sponsor. He brushed off criticisms that the federal government should have acted long before Tuesday.

"We have no right to criticize Washington or the White House or Congress when it took us so many years to get our program moving."

Florida's database is slated to start in late August, he said, but supporters now are worried about a House bill that would prohibit pharmaceutical companies from donating money to help run it. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has pledged $1 million in support, which could become critical because the state has refused to allocate public dollars for it.

"If they are going to block funding for something, you're starving it to death," said Sharon Kelley, a member of the foundation raising money for the database. She also coordinates a Pinellas County task force on prescription drug abuse.

"I applaud the federal recognition that this is a nationwide problem," she said.

Federal officials will ask Congress to pass legislation requiring doctors to be educated about prescription narcotics when renewing their DEA licenses to prescribe controlled drugs.

Many physicians graduated from medical school before today's powerful painkillers were available and may not understand how to monitor patients for signs of addiction, explained Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

The FDA is directing the manufacturers of commonly abused narcotics to develop the training curriculum, which the agency will review. The companies also have to create an easy-to-understand patient guide, including how to take the drugs and the potential for abuse.

"Probably for older physicians, it will be helpful to have some education," said Dr. Danya Godoy, an anesthesiologist and interventional pain management physician at Suncoast Medical Clinic in St. Petersburg.

But she doesn't see the training as a complete solution.

"This is becoming more a drug problem like cocaine, marijuana. We need to address this like a criminal problem, not like a physician or a patient problem."

Another element of the strategy is a national education campaign featuring ads like the famous frying-egg "this is your brain on drugs" ad used in past antidrug efforts. Drug companies will be asked to contribute money to the effort.

While the White House is calling on law enforcement to crack down on pill mills, as well as the patients who frequent them, some say none of this is much use without more help for addicts. The plan calls for only modest increases in funds for prevention and treatment programs.

"Until this country starts funding drug treatment programs to the level required, we are just going to have full jails and a move to the next easily available and inexpensive drug, which now seems to be heroin," said Paul Sloan, a Venice-based pain clinic owner and president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers.

"The worst part of all this is that instead of war on medication abuse it has now become a war on pain patients."

Times staff writer Meg Laughlin contributed to this report, which also used information from the Associated Press. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

Federal government unveils program to fight prescription drug epidemic 04/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 9:05am]

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