AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorney General Janet Mills says efforts to curb the growing problem of the diversion of prescription drugs for illegal purposes is hampered by some federal agencies refusing to cooperate with the state prescription drug monitoring program.
“There are an awful lot of veterans who may be getting a prescription in one place for one purpose, and at Togus or another veterans facility for another purpose,” Mills said in a recent interview. “There should be a cross-checking for good medical reasons.”
She said the state prescription drug monitoring program is in place to limit access to pain medications such as OxyContin and other drugs that have an illegal market. She said there have been many instances of “doctor shopping” by individuals seeking several prescriptions so they can sell drugs, and the monitoring program has reduced that.
“But there are federal agencies like the [Veterans Affairs] that are not participating,” she said. “That just makes no sense to me.”
Mills said at a recent meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General there was a vigorous discussion of how best to operate prescription drug monitoring programs. She said other attorneys general joined her in complaining to Justice Department officials about the lack of cooperation by some federal agencies.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said Veterans Affairs had stopped participating out of privacy concerns for veterans. He said the VA has not yet developed a way to assure it can cooperate, and added he has urged that they do so.
“Too many lives have been lost to prescription drug abuse,” he said. “I have urged the VA to work through the legal issues so they can participate in the state monitoring program.”
Michaud is chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He said the panel will continue to push the VA to resolve the legal issues and said it would consider legislation if needed to solve the problem.
“We don’t want veterans or anyone else using drugs for an illegal purpose,” he said. “This is a very serious problem.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she had chaired hearings in 2003 on the broader issue of diversion of prescription drugs for illegal uses, and that the problem is worse now than then. She said she was not aware of the VA action and would seek an explanation of why it has not been able to work out a solution.
“The program that the state has in place has done a good job trying to address this problem,” she said. “I think all federal agencies should be working with the states to address this very serious problem.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the state has done a good job addressing the problem of prescription drug abuse, and says the federal government should be cooperating with all states in fighting the problem.
“Federal agencies should do their share to cooperate,” she said. “We need to do much more to eliminate this problem and also to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in the system. Federal agencies need to do their share.”
Pingree praised Mills, saying she is right to do all she can to reduce the amount of prescription drug diversion, knowing it never will be totally stopped.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the diversion of prescription medications is a problem across the country. She said it has been a growing problem for law enforcement and the medical community.
“This has had a profound impact in the state,” she said. “There is no question that prescription drug abuse is on the rise and that all in government, at whatever level, should do all they can to combat this serious problem.”
Snowe said the federal government not only should be cooperating with state efforts, it also should consider ways to enhance the efforts being made by the states to reduce drug diversion.
“This is an issue that we should be doing more to address,” she said.
Mills said there are other federal agencies that also should do more to cooperate in state and local efforts to reduce drug diversion. She expects other state attorneys general will join in the effort to improve federal-state cooperation, as will members of the state’s congressional delegation.