Senate bill targeting drug abuse would require doctor registration

Doctors who prescribe controlled substances would be required to register with the state’s prescription monitoring program under a Senate bill aimed at cracking down on prescription drug abuse.

The bill, which closely mirrors legislation unanimously recommended late last year by a joint legislative committee, targets doctors who excessively prescribe medications that can be abused or sold illegally. For the second time in three years, lawmakers are attempting to tackle what has been described as a pervasive public health threat that has surpassed car accidents as the state’s leading cause of accidental deaths.

“We see the devastation in our own communities in the rise in robberies and break-ins and murders all related to drugs, starting with prescription drugs,” Senate President Therese Murray said Tuesday morning on WCAI-FM.

A 2010 state law that went into effect in January 2011 expanded the state’s electronic Prescription Drug Monitoring program to include new classes of drugs, but it left participation by doctors voluntary.

The bill to be proposed would also require doctors or hospitals to notify parents of a minor treated for a drug overdose.

Legislative leaders on Tuesday said only about 1,700 of 40,000 prescribers in Massachusetts have signed up for the program which allows public health officials to track the number and recipients of controlled substances. Under the proposal, the top 30 percent of prescribers for 90 percent of all controlled substances in the state would be required to enroll immediately, while the rest of physicians would have three years to register.

Patients with a history of prescription drug abuse would be restricted to using a single pharmacy, an anti-fraud protection that would be triggered under the proposed law at 11 prescriptions from four doctors or four pharmacies within 90 days.

The bill would also require pharmacies, drug manufacturers and others to report drug thefts to local police, as well as the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse unanimously recommended passage of a similar bill in October. The Senate on Tuesday morning ordered that Murray’s redrafted bill S 2072 be put on the docket for consideration on Thursday at the next formal session.

A report in 2009 from the OxyContin and Heroin Commission found that Massachusetts had one of the highest rates of opioid abuse in the country, resulting in 3,265 deaths from 2002 through 2007 and 23,369 hospitalizations in 2006 alone.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, nearly as many people tried prescription pain killers for the first time in 2010 as tried marijuana nationally. After marijuana, Vicodin and amphetamines were the mostly commonly used drugs by 12th graders with more than 55 percent getting the drugs for free from friends or relatives and 17.6 percent from a doctor’s prescription.

The bill would amend the 2010 law that required prescription drug lockboxes to be sold at pharmacies near the check-out counter, softening the language to simply require the boxes be available for sale and advertised near the counter.

Prescriptions for controlled substances would have to be written by doctors on “secure,” tamper-proof prescription pads already required for Medicare and Medicaid patients, and physicians would be required to screen patients through the monitoring program before prescribing a controlled substance.

The bill also revives the idea of a “Good Samaritan” law that would grant limited immunity from drug possession charges, but not drug trafficking or distribution charges, to drug overdose victims or witnesses after the idea was stripped from the 2010 bill. Similar language was included in an habitual offender law passed in November by the Senate.

Designer drugs known as “bath salts” would be classified as a Class C substance under the bill, banning possession, distribution and manufacturing of the increasingly popular substance that can be smoked, inhaled or injected.

The bill requires the Department of Public Health to produce pamphlets for physicians to distribute with every prescription of Schedule II or Schedule III drugs, including information on the dangers of misuse and abuse, proper storage and disposal and addiction support resources.

A working group of physicians would be tapped to write a “best practices” guide for prescribing opioids, and public defenders and certain court employees would need to be trained in substance abuse.

Under the bill, a commission would be established to study the rate of dependency on prescription drugs among senior citizens.