AUGUSTA, Maine — A state task force on Tuesday worked on the finishing touches for an interim plan to combat prescription drug abuse in Maine, just as the state sees a spike in pharmaceutical drug deaths and pharmacy robberies and a jump in crime fueled largely by prescription drug addictions.
The 17-member Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force is laying the groundwork for expanding disposal options for residents who want to get rid of unwanted medications, implementing a statewide program that alerts doctors when their patients have been involved in drug crimes, and strengthening a state program that tracks patients’ prescription histories.
The task force’s meeting on Tuesday afternoon started just as a Bucksport Rite Aid was targeted by one or more robbers allegedly seeking prescription drugs, making it the state’s 24th pharmacy to experience a robbery so far this year. The state experienced 24 pharmacy robberies in all of 2011, according to data from the office of Maine’s U.S. attorney.
The task force recommendations are included in a 33-page report the group is preparing for Gov. Paul LePage, who created the group in February, citing a prescription drug abuse “epidemic.” John Morris, LePage’s public safety commissioner, has attributed a year-over-year crime increase in Maine from 2010 to 2011 to prescription drug-related crimes.
A draft copy of the report notes that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has clarified regulations so law enforcement agencies can incinerate unwanted prescription drugs in Maine rather than ship them out of state at a higher cost.
It also notes the agency will propose legislation next year that makes drug collection funding available to a wider cross-section of disposal programs. Traditionally, mail-back collection programs have received the bulk of available funding.
A later version of the report will include a map indicating where 51 drug disposal drop boxes statewide are located.
Much of the task force’s discussion Tuesday centered on a proposal to pilot a statewide program that alerts doctors if their patients have been involved in drug crimes. The two-year pilot program would be based on an existing program that began in Aroostook County and has expanded to Washington, Hancock, Piscataquis and Penobscot counties.
Doctors participating in the Diversion Alert Program periodically receive lists of those who recently have been arrested for prescription drug-related offenses, said Clare Desrosiers, project director at the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.
“Because of the program, they’re able to talk to other doctors about shared patients,” Desrosiers told task force members. That has resulted in more coordinated care and discussions among the doctors before prescribing medications, she said.
But specialists in the state Office of Substance Abuse have raised concerns about the Diversion Alert Program, Guy Cousins, the office’s director, wrote this week in a letter to the prescription drug abuse task force. There’s limited evidence it’s effective, and the program could lead to some patients unnecessarily losing health care services because of concern among their doctors, he said.
“We have people that violate the law, they get into trouble, they get into treatment and, in recovery, they deserve quality medical care,” said Natalie Morse, who directs the Prevention Center at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta and Waterville.
Doctors need to know how to address patients’ prescription drug addictions rather than simply cut those patients off, task force members said. And the Diversion Alert Program can be a valuable tool, they said.
“This is a means for a physician to see there’s something wrong with a patient and that they can help them,” said Rep. Susan Morissette, R-Winslow, a task force member.
“I’m not going to read every newspaper. I’m not going to see every arrest,” said Dr. Stevan Gressit, director of the International Institute for Pharmaceutical Safety at the University of New England. “I would appreciate the synopsis.”
Task force members also are focused on strengthening and expanding the use of a state program that tracks patients’ prescription histories and allowing it to be updated in real time. They also discussed on Tuesday education and outreach efforts to make parents, young people and health care providers aware of the dangers of prescription drug abuse and online resources available to help them in prevention efforts.
The group next meets in August, when members will discuss legislative changes they might propose to implement their recommendations.