The Times West Virginian

May 23, 2013

Appropriate rationale, safety go away in face of drug addiction

Times West Virginian

— The No. 1 prescribed drug among Medicare patients in West Virginia isn’t for heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

No, it’s the very powerful narcotic hydrocodone-acetaminophen, known by brand names like Lortab, Lorcet, Dolorex and Vicodin. A recent report released by ProPublica revealed that in 2010, the most recent data available, doctors wrote 402,159 prescriptions for Medicare patients at a cost of $5.2 million.

But we’re not the only state with a high rate of hydrocodone-acetaminophen prescriptions — it’s actually the third most-prescribed medication in the country. In 2010, 31 million prescriptions were written for Medicare recipients at a cost of $320 million.

It’s unnerving, considering the escalating prescription drug abuse problem we’ve had in the Mountain State in recent years. While hydrocodone-acetaminophen doesn’t have the street value of other narcotic pain medications, like oxycodone, it has street value none the less.

It’s easier to get hydrocodone-acetaminophen than oxycodone, as the former is classified as a schedule-three drug, meaning that doctors can call in prescriptions and the drug can be refilled without a follow-up appointment. When it’s easier to get a drug, the price on the street is lower. It infects impoverished neighborhoods when the price of oxycodone is too much to sustain a raging drug habit.

Mike O'Neal,  professor of drug diversion, substance abuse and pain management at Knoxville South College School of Pharmacy in Tennessee, told the Charleston Daily Mail that even though despite the fact that  hydrocodone-acetaminophen abuse can lead to severe kidney and liver damage, it is still just as addictive and abused as its cousin oxycodone.

“The thought was, people won't abuse that as much because the acetaminophen would hurt their kidneys. That's a reasonable thought, but that's not true. In the face of drug addiction, all appropriate rationale and safety goes away,” O’Neal told the newspaper.

It’s also unnerving that the statistics available are solely for Medicare D patients, records that were subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It doesn’t account for the millions more under private insurance or the uninsured or even those under the umbrella of Medicaid. Taking all other patients into account, it’s reasonable to assume that the statistics would vary little.

We certainly hope that doctors and health professionals take every step to ensure that abuse is stopped at the source and that law enforcement officials make sure that doctors who abuse privileges, those who forge prescriptions, those who steal and those who deal are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Ask any officer and he may tell you that the biggest problem in our state and even in our county is not illegal drugs — it’s drugs that are sold or purchased illegally and abused for a “high.”

Too many lives have been shattered by such abuse.