COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina had at least 225 prescription drug overdose deaths in 2011, but the state hasn’t had a coordinated efforts to crack down on the problem.
Gov. Nikki Haley wants that to change, and Friday she issued an executive order creating the Governor’s Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Council to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the amount of dangerous opioid painkillers ending up in the wrong hands. The council is an outgrowth of a report on the problem last May by state Inspector General Patrick Maley.
“Prescription drug abuse is a serious issue in this country and in South Carolina, affecting far too many of our citizens and their families,” Haley said. “Finding solutions for drug addiction of any kind is always complicated and takes a real team effort.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues annual reports detailing prescription drug overdoses, which have been rising dramatically for more than a decade and are considered at epidemic stage. South Carolina ranks in the middle of the pack (23rd in 2010) among states in prescription drug overdose deaths.
But state officials suspect that number is underreported. In 2011, York County reported two prescription drug overdose deaths, but 34 drug overdose deaths from all drugs. Since national statistics indicate 60 percent of overdose deaths are related to prescription drugs, the York statistic for prescription overdose deaths is suspect.
Haley’s council no doubt will encourage physicians to make use of the state’s existing Prescription Monitoring Program, a centralized electronic data base. Only 22 percent of state doctors are registered in the program, and some of those don’t use it regularly, according to the inspector general’s report.
The monitoring program gives physicians a heads-up when drug abusers or dealers get excess pills by getting prescriptions from multiple doctors.
The inspector general’s report also noted the state needs a strategy to crack down on pill mills, where doctors routinely over-prescribe painkillers. Kentucky and Florida in recent years have passed regulations that led to decreases in prescriptions for commonly abused drugs of 14 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
South Carolina’s new council will gauge the extent of prescription drug abuse, come up with possible solutions and make an annual report to the governor on the issue. The inspector general’s report notes pill mills operate “with impunity due to the perceived lack of administrative or criminal tools to address” the problem.
Most often the abused drugs are pain-killers, including oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone. A review of overdose admissions in York County found 93 percent of cases involved prescription pain pills. A 90-pill prescription for oxycodone costs about $122 retail or $25 with some insurance co-pays, but the pills can be sold on the street for more than $2,000 in profit.
Law enforcement organizations, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and other state agencies have worked for years to prevent prescription drug abuse. Leaders of those organizations said they appreciate the formation of a council to help coordinate efforts and suggest solutions.
“For those of us in law enforcement, having a coordinated approach through the council can provide a mechanism to help address the challenges of this growing problem,” said SLED Chief Mark Keel.
“A few physicians in this state have drifted to the lowest rung of ethical conduct and are selfishly abusing their privilege to prescribe controlled substances in order to generate an income,” said Dr. Louis Costa, president of the S.C. Board of Medical Examiners.
The council will include representatives from SLED, DHEC, the state solicitors’ office, the boards of medical examiners, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy, and the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Licensing and Regulation, and Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.