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More Americans die each year from overdosing on prescription drugs, like Vicodin and OxyContin, than from heroin or cocaine. Many states want to stop pill-popping patients and unscrupulous doctors, so they electronically track prescriptions.

Sarah Varney, of KQED, reports.

SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: This is a story about what can happen when no one is looking. For the patients at Universal Pain Management, a medical clinic in northern Los Angeles County, Dr. Francis Riegler is always looking.

DR. FRANCIS RIEGLER: He was here in November and got a prescription for our meds. And then he saw another local doc on December 1st and December 15th - and got prescriptions for what?

VARNEY: Dr. Riegler huddles with the clinic's nurse practitioner over a computer printout. The one-page report from the state's drug-tracking system shows that the patient was on the hunt for more Vicodin, a powerful pain reliever that he was already getting from Dr. Riegler's clinic.

RIEGLER: Busted.

VARNEY: The system went online in 1998, and that's when its full power was realized. Now, physicians like Dr. Riegler can log in and see which prescriptions their patients have filled anywhere in California.

RIEGLER: We were able to weed out a significant number of people who were either abusing or diverting their medications or hording them, where we simply had no idea.

VARNEY: So alarm bells went off among doctors and law enforcement when California Gov. Jerry Brown announced last year that for budget reasons, he was eliminating the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, which had long managed the prescription drug-monitoring program. Dr. Scott Fishman, chief of pain medicine at the University of California-Davis, is among those fearful that if California's system closes down, the Golden State could attract pill pushers from around the country.

SCOTT FISHMAN: The rest of the country is developing prescription-monitoring programs, not abandoning them.

VARNEY: Nonetheless, in January, the state laid off or transferred the nine people who operated the prescription database. And now there's one, lone civil servant at the Department of Justice keeping it from going dark.

MIKE SMALL: I'm Mike Small, program manager for the Law Enforcement Support Program.

VARNEY: Can one person really keep a massive system - with 200 million entries - going? Small insists his one-man operation, and the measures he's put in place, are working for now.

SMALL: It's not going to become unusable. The electronic system itself has not faltered. It's been operating this entire time.

VARNEY: Small says there was a backlog, but he was able to catch up. And several physicians confirmed that the database is up to date. But the program now relies solely on year-to-year grants from the state's medical and pharmacy boards. Small agrees that without a permanent source of funding, the future of California's prescription-drug monitoring program is indeed unclear.

SMALL: Grant funding is an iffy thing. It doesn't promise a rock-solid future, and some of the clients might be fearful of the state's commitment to funding this program.

VARNEY: The possibility that the nation's most populous state might stop tracking the sale of prescription drugs has not gone unnoticed by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

MARY MCELDERRY: It's something that we're looking very, very closely at.

VARNEY: Mary McElderry oversees the federal government's prescription drug operations for the Los Angeles Field Division. She says agents around the country rely on state-run monitoring programs to catch criminals who peddle OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax, among others.

MCELDERRY: We have 48 states that have laws governing prescription drug monitoring. We have 37 states that actually have systems in place. California, unfortunately, is probably the only one right now that's in danger of losing their drug-monitoring system - which would be devastating to us.

VARNEY: And devastating for U.S. attorneys, who rely on the database for evidence in criminal prosecutions. McElderry recounts the case of an Orange County doctor who ran a cash-for-prescriptions business out of the local Starbucks. The doctor has been indicted on charges of drug distribution, and the database records are key to the prosecution's case.

Indeed, drug policymakers say what is ultimately needed is a national database. That would prevent sophisticated criminal networks, that pay patients to get prescriptions and hand them over, from simply moving across state lines to evade detection.

Back at Dr. Riegler's L.A. County clinic, the veteran pain specialist is getting ready to confront one of his patients who has not evaded detection. Dr. Riegler holds a computer printout, clear evidence that the patient he's seeing today filled multiple Vicodin prescriptions written by another doctor. Maybe there's an explanation, Dr. Riegler tells me. Then he sighs...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

VARNEY: ...and goes looking for an answer from his patient.

RIEGLER: Good afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good afternoon, sir.

RIEGLER: OK. We're treating you for neck pain and arm pain. Is that correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's correct, doc.

RIEGLER: And how have you been doing?

VARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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