Some 7.8 million pain medication prescriptions were issued in Georgia in 2015, equivalent to more than on prescription for every adult in the state.
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

Controversy flares over Georgia Senate bill to curb opioid epidemic

A bill aimed at curbing opioid addiction narrowly passed a Georgia Senate committee Thursday, after tense words over its attempt to make doctors criminally liable for not tracking prescriptions.

The legislation is a leading part of a multi-pronged initiative by state Senate leaders this year to strengthen laws against opioid misuse and mental health services for those in its grip.

MORE: Georgia’s opioid crisis

IN-DEPTH: Heroin’s trail of death

Senate Bill 81, which passed seven votes to six, would require doctors who prescribe drugs like opiates and benzodiazepines to register with a state database that tracks patient prescriptions. They’d have six months to get up to speed using it, learning to research whether their own patients were doctor-hopping or getting too many prescriptions for addictive drugs.

Then starting in July 2018, if they “knowingly and intentionally” don’t use the database or ignore the information in it, they could be guilty of a crime. If the doctor’s staff member was “delegated” to use the database and intentionally didn’t, then that staffer would be on the hook. Certain doctors would be exempt, like those in palliative care.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will again have Georgia’s largest team covering the Legislature. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at myAJC.com/georgialegislature.

Doctors protested that making it a crime went overboard. The legislation’s sponsor disagreed.

“You have to remember we’re dealing with professionals who’ve been to school for a long time,” said Sen. Renee Unterman, sponsor of the bill and chairwoman of the Health and Human Services committee, which heard the bill. “What I’m trying to do is get on the front end, ahead of the curve to save lives.”

POLITICS: AJC Georgia Legislative Navigator

Georgia, like other areas of the country, has been in the grip of an opioid epidemic that has led to thousands of overdose deaths. In 2015 alone, 7.8 million pain medication prescriptions were issued here, equivalent to more than one prescription for every Georgia adult, a joint investigation by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity showed.

In the past, doctors who over-prescribed or patients who went from doctor to doctor looking for easy prescribers were found out only after a death or overdose. Unterman, R-Buford, hopes that increasing mandatory use of the database will speed up detection of over-prescribing.

Pharmacists already use the database, and she called that a backstop. No pharmacist has yet been prosecuted under that law, said Greg Reybold, a lobbyist for the Georgia Pharmacy Association.

Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican and internal medicine doctor, voted against the bill. He said he supported the desire to deal with opioid misuse. But he raised the specter of a doctor making a prescription in a crisis situation and forgetting to use the database, and then getting hit with a misdemeanor.

President Barack Obama traveled to Atlanta Tuesday to speak on a panel about the growing problem of opioid abuse of drugs, like heroin and morphine.

With a misdemeanor conviction, “I lose my hospital privileges,” up-ending a career, he said. “If you make a mistake it should be referred to the board.”

The language specifying “knowing and intentional” failure to use the database eased his concerns somewhat, he said. But such an offense still should be a professional matter dealt with by the board, not a criminal one, he said.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board, which oversees doctors, is made up mostly of other doctors and has jurisdiction over careers, not crimes. Watson said existing criminal laws were adequate to deal with doctors who use their prescribing privileges to deal drugs.

Unterman was blunt with reporters after the hearing in her criticism of the doctors’ opposition.

“I’m addressing the opioid epidemic,” she said. “Unfortunately the doctors would like to make it all about them.”

The bill now goes to the Senate floor, and if it passes there, to the House, where representatives may have their own slate of changes.

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