by Ari Armstrong
Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem, sometimes a fatal one. But the answer is not for the government to monitor and harass people who suffer from devastating pain — and make it harder for them to manage their pain — in a misguided attempt to save drug abusers from themselves. Unfortunately, that is precisely the effect of House Bill 1283, sponsored by Rep. Beth McCann of Denver.
At issue is the Colorado Prescription Monitoring Program, operated by a private corporation, Health Information Designs. According to HID, “The program allows practitioners and pharmacists to gather information about the patients they serve and to ensure that their prescribing and dispensing is appropriate for the circumstances presented.”
In other words, doctors and pharmacies record a patient’s prescription information in the database, and then these records are available to numerous health professionals, as well as to government agents by warrant.
The Legislature originally established the program in 2005, mostly using funds from the Justice Department. The Legislature reauthorized the program in 2011, when it received a $60,000 grant for it from Purdue Pharm, maker of OxyContin, The Denver Post reports. And as The Post reports, the program also allows the government to charge registered prescribers $25 per year.
McCann’s bill seeks to expand the registry to, among other things, allow government officials to access some of the information in the database “for public health purposes;” allow law enforcement to use the database to investigate individual pharmacies; expand the number of people with access to a patient’s personal files; and force “prescribing practitioners and pharmacists to register and create user accounts with the program.”
True, prescription drug deaths are a problem — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, in 2008, more than 20,000 people died from prescription drug overdoses, nearly 15,000 of which involved pain medications. (In speaking to 9News, McCann overstated the magnitude of the problem, apparently botching the findings of a first and second report.) But the registry has little effect on the problem.
For starters, these drug-related deaths include those who commit suicide, obtain their prescription drugs legally and mix their prescription drugs with other drugs such as alcohol.
Moreover, drug abusers who have trouble getting one type of drug often switch to another type. Finally, some drug abusers steal their drugs, often from relatives — the registry would not fix that problem.
Even if and to the degree the registry curbs drug abuse, it is not the government’s proper role to save people from their own irresponsible decisions (or to relieve parents of the responsibility of monitoring their own children) — particularly when doing so causes enormous suffering among those with serious injuries and diseases (such as terminal cancer). Undoubtedly, clamping down on prescription drugs makes it harder for those who truly need pain medications to get them.
McCann told 9News she thinks it’s “suspicious behavior” when people “show up in an emergency room and talk about how much pain they’re having.” News flash: Usually when people go to the emergency room complaining of serious pain, it’s because they have serious pain. They should not be presumed guilty of drug abuse by doctors fearing government reprisals.
In a 2012 Denver Post story, Michael Booth wrote about Drug Enforcement Administration complaints of low registry use. No doubt the DEA wants to access the registry to pursue criminal prosecutions. Even assuming the most humanitarian motives on the part of the DEA, the agent quoted by Booth grants that a big reason doctors and pharmacies don’t participate is they don’t have the time. “Encouraging” them to use the registry will increase their costs and, on balance, incentivize doctors to err on the side of not prescribing pain drugs — even if a patient truly needs them.
Drug abuse is a tragedy, but one caused by the people abusing the drugs. Drug abuse should be addressed by the abusers and by caring friends and counselors, not by politicians, bureaucrats and law enforcement agents. Another tragedy is letting people suffer in severe pain because the government is cracking down on drug prescriptions.
It is immoral for the government to punish the responsible for the sake of the irresponsible.
Colorado author and blogger Ari Armstrong wrote this for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. He writes at ariarmstrong.com.