Roundtable discussion with the Department of Public Health on the Prescription Monitoring Program

  • Brian Fraga
    Herald News Staff Reporter
    Posted Mar. 11, 2014 @ 1:39 pm
    Updated at 1:48 PM

    FALL RIVER – About 72 percent of Fall River residents have received a prescription for highly-addictive opiates such as Oxycodone and Methadone, which places the Spindle City well above the state average of 40 percent.

    “Based upon the statistics, we’re in crisis here in this community,” State Rep. Carole E. Fiola, D-Fall River, said during a meeting of healthcare providers, pharmacists, state officials, law enforcement officers and others who gathered at the SSTAR offices this morning to discuss the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program.

    The state’s Prescription Monitoring Program is intended to prevent prescription drug abuse and fraud by compiling data on patients’ prescription histories, as well as prescribers’ practices, to look for irregularities and report any suspected malfeasance to law enforcement agencies.

    But this morning’s conversation at the SSTAR offices on Stanley Street indicate that local pharmacists, drug treatment counselors and others believe the system needs improvement, especially in the area of what law enforcement agencies to contact if they suspect someone is fraudulently writing or obtaining prescriptions for highly-addictive Schedule II opiates.

    Opiate prescription abuse is a serious public health and safety issue because those drugs often lead many people to become addicted, and then they may commit crimes to obtain those drugs. Several addicts will move on to heroin, which is cheaper, but often laced with other potent drugs such as Fentanyl.

    Dozens of addicts have died across Massachusetts in the past month from heroin overdoses, which have prompted mayors in Fall River and New Bedford to call for police officers and firefighters to carry Narcan, an antidote that reverses opiate overdoses.

    Deborah Allwes, the director of the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program, said there are “a lot of reasons” why the overdoses are happening, with two of the biggest likely factors being doctors who overprescribe opiates and patients who game the system by “doctor shopping and pharmacy shopping.”

    The problem is particularly acute in Bristol County, where about 16.4 percent of the population has received at least one prescription for a Schedule II opiate. The state average is 11.3 percent, Allwes said.

    At 72 percent, Fall River “has one of the highest” Schedule II opiate prescription rates in Massachusetts, where the state average is 40 percent. In New Bedford, almost 70 percent of residents have been given a Schedule II opiate prescription, said Allwes, who added that the Department of Public Health’s statistics do not explain why the two gateway cities have those high rates.

    “We can’t draw conclusions,” Allwes said. “Maybe there is a larger older population and more people with chronic diseases.”

    State Rep. Alan Silvia, D-Fall River, listed high unemployment, poverty, more public housing than most communities, and low educational attainment as likely factors.

    “We have an epidemic in Fall River like no other city or community,” Silvia said, adding that he has filed legislation that would seek to limit physicians to writing no more than three days worth of opiate prescriptions at any given time.

    Fiola compared the problem to a 500-piece puzzle with no easy answers. Getting people in a room and talking together, Fiola said, was a big step toward finding some possible solutions.

    “This is the beginning of a conversation, and everything starts with a conversation,” Fiola said. “We have a lot of homework to do.”