America can’t afford to be in denial about pain killer addiction.
Neither can the medical profession.
And neither can Missouri, which remains the only state that won’t create a database to track prescriptions for addictive drugs so health and law enforcement officials can identify patients who are abusing drugs and doctors who are enabling them.
Narcotic-based painkillers have a role in treatment of severe injuries and some chronic illnesses. But they are being overprescribed.
The number of prescriptions for their use has tripled nationwide over the last 25 years. A recent Kansas City Star story reported that Missouri hospitals are seeing twice as many opioid emergencies as they did a decade ago. In Kansas City, hospital emergency rooms treated 64 patients for painkiller emergencies in 2013, up from just nine in 2004.
Most addictive painkillers are prescribed legally. But medical schools have been too slow to educate future physicians about their risks and to teach safer options for pain management.
The health care system, which still uses perverse incentives to reward doctors, also has a role in the crisis.
Doctors are often compensated for the number of patients they are able to see, not the quality of the visits. Often, writing a prescription is the fastest way to hustle a patient out the door.
And some doctors acknowledge they sometimes inappropriately prescribe painkillers to avoid being graded down in patient satisfaction surveys.
But patients who become addicted are never happy for long. They are constantly on the hunt for more pills, and Missouri makes it too easy for them to obtain medications by doctor shopping or visiting hospital emergency rooms.
Alone among U.S. states, the Missouri General Assembly has refused to create a prescription drug monitoring program. The House passed a bill creating a shared database on Tuesday, but the holdup in years past has been the Senate.
In an age in which volumes of information about Americans are on file, it’s absurd for lawmakers to contend that a monitoring plan is a violation of privacy. Opioid addiction ruins lives and frequently becomes a gateway for heroin use. If the legislature can’t get its act together then Missouri counties should act to create a tool for sharing information.
The U.S. Senate appears to be moving toward bipartisan, constructive legislation on opioid abuse. States and the medical profession must also do more to get ahead of a growing problem.