AUGUSTA, Maine – Doctors are disputing claims made by Public Safety Commissioner John Morris that an increase in crime in the state last year was fueled by doctors over prescribing prescription drugs.
Morris last week said much of the increase seen in the 2010 crime statistics was caused by drug addicts seeking money or property they can sell to feed their habit, or seeking to steal prescription drugs.
Morris also noted that the most recent drug give back day had a record number of prescription drugs collected from Mainers. The April 30 effort saw 88 participating law enforcement agencies collecting drugs at 156 sites. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration they collected 11,920 pounds of medications — a 52 percent increase from last year.
“This demonstrates, and I don’t know what the solution is, that people who prescribe pills are overprescribing,” he said.
Morris said when he had surgery he was prescribed a 30-day supply of a strong pain reliever that can be addictive. He said he used the medication for a week.
“So I had all those extra pills in my medicine cabinet and those are lucrative targets for those that are ill with an addiction,” he said. “This is a serious problem. Those 12,000 pounds of pills, it’s just amazing to think how many pills that represents.”
Gordon Smith, vice president of the Maine Medical Association, agreed that prescription drug abuse in Maine is a serious problem, but rejected Morris’ assertion that doctors, along with other health professionals, are overprescribing.
“You can’t judge from one anecdote what the problem is in the system,” he said. “We all have had similar experiences, particularly in dental offices. But frankly, that is not the kind of thing that is driving this problem.”
Smith said patients selling drugs that they have been prescribed is a far bigger problem and that it is rare for a doctor to overprescribe medication. He said there are always “the very few” doctors that violate the law and prescribing guidelines.
“We have much more of a problem with patients shopping among prescribers to get prescriptions they then abuse, or they sell the drugs,” he said.
Dr. Gary Palman is a pain specialist that practices in both Portland and Lewiston. He said there are a few doctors that over prescribe but agreed with Smith that the problem of prescription drug abuse is far broader than prescribers overprescribing.
“The majority of physicians who prescribe medication legally prescribe what they believe to be normal quantities and the normal number of medications,” he said.
Dr. Palman said the situation described by Commissioner Morris is typical for a major surgery. He said doctors prescribe what they believe is needed for the individual knowing that not everyone will need all of the medication, and for some it may not be enough.
“There is no way for a physician to predict how long that pain will last and how much medication will be necessary to take care of that,” Palman said. “If the person has leftover medication after that procedure, it does not mean that the physician has overprescribed.”
Palman agreed with Smith and Morris that the problem of leftover pills is serious, not only for drug abuse but for pollution issues when people flush old drugs down the toilet. Smith said environmental studies have shown that it is causing serious pollution problems.
Morris said while there are stepped-up efforts to combat criminal activities around prescription abuse, he agrees there must be more education and prevention efforts.
“We are not going to solve it by ourselves,” he said. “We need to get everyone involved and I will be looking at getting a group together to look at this once the session is over.”
Smith said lawmakers are considering a study that could be a way to look at the issue more broadly. He said it is not just the 4,000 doctors in Maine that are prescribing drugs; there are 1,000 advanced nurse practitioners, 600 physician assistants and 700 dentists. He suggested all should be involved in any effort to look at drug prescribing policies.
“Maybe it is time to require that all of them to be registered in the prescription drug monitoring program,” he said.
Palman said that doctors need to be more active in telling patients that if they have leftover medications, they should bring them to the doctor’s office for proper disposal. He said patients should not leave them in their medicine chests until the next disposal day is set up by law enforcement agencies.