Georgia prescription tracking system may shut down months after launch

A program designed to combat prescription drug abuse — which causes or contributes to the overdose deaths of 11 Georgians every week — could run out of money to operate only a few months after it gets under way in June.

State lawmakers did not appropriate any funding for the prescription monitoring program, an electronic database that tracks prescriptions, when they passed legislation to create it in 2011. A two-year, $400,000 federal grant that pays startup costs for a new PMP grant expires Sept. 30.

Georgia is not eligible to apply for another federal grant because state lawmakers would not allow the database to be shared with other states when they approved the program. And even though the state House and Senate each approved versions of legislation that would have corrected the problem this year, a final version died without a vote as the General Assembly’s session ended.

Georgia is among the last six states in the nation to put a PMP in place, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws. The purpose is to help flag addicts who amass dangerous amounts of drugs by switching from doctor to doctor, and help authorities identify clinics that issue suspiciously high amounts of prescription narcotics.

The looming loss of funding is only the latest hindrance to Georgia’s PMP, which since its inception has been hamstrung with tight restrictions on who can use the database and how. After nearly two years in development, the database is set to launch in mid-June.

But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February analyzed the program and found it falls short of what is needed to combat prescription drug diversion.

Georgia’s program does not grant access to the database to law enforcement officers (unless they have a warrant), the state medical board, or doctors and pharmacists in other states.

Even doctors and pharmacists within the state are not required to check the database before dispensing dangerous narcotics and stimulants to patients.

As a result of the state’s lax regulatory environment, unscrupulous pain clinic operators are flooding into Georgia, the AJC investigation found.

Prescription drug abuse is a growing concern throughout the nation. Deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs now outnumber motor vehicle fatalities. And although deaths from prescription drug overdoses declined in Georgia from 2010 to 2011, they still accounted for 512 of the 664 fatal overdoses in the state, according to the GBI. An additional 70 overdose deaths were caused by a combination of prescription and illicit street drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Wayne McClure said he has all but given up hope on the state’s efforts to combat prescription drug overdoses such as the one that killed his 27-year-old son, Cameron, in April 2011.

The way McClure sees it, the government shares some of the blame for his son’s overdose on the painkiller oxycodone. The state’s lax system of oversight made it too easy for Cameron to get a drug he had no legitimate medical need for at an unscrupulous pain clinic, or “pill mill,” McClure said.

“My son lost his life over a pill,” said McClure, reached by phone this week. “I know they didn’t shove it down his throat, but they made it easy for him to get.”

State Sen. Buddy Carter, a Republican from Pooler, said he introduced two bills during this year’s legislative session designed to allow Georgia to begin sharing information in the database with other states. Senate Bill 132, which would allow the information to be shared with pharmacists outside Georgia, was amended to another bill (House Bill 209). That bill passed and was sent to the governor to sign.

Senate Bill 134 would have given out-of-state doctors access to the database. It passed both the Senate and House, but a final version failed to come up for a vote in the Senate during the last hour of the last day of the session.

“I was extremely disappointed that it didn’t pass at the very end,” Carter said. “I care very much about the prescription drug monitoring program. I want to see it up and running, and I want to see it funded.”

So, too, does Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, which is in charge of establishing and running the PMP. Allen estimates it will cost $180,000 to $200,000 a year to keep the database going.

If the program has to shut down for a few months until the Legislature meets again in 2014, the fledgling program is in jeopardy of losing momentum just as it’s getting off the ground.

Anything that undermines the progress at such an early stage could hamper the state’s ability to recruit pharmacists and doctors to participate, Allen said.

As it is, states such as Georgia that don’t require doctors and pharmacists to check the database only enjoy a participation rate of about 15 percent to 20 percent.

The Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency will try to get an extension on the existing grant. Only about $30,000 of the $400,000 has been used so far since the database isn’t operational yet. But Allen worries the federal government may snatch the unused money when the grant term expires, since sequestration cuts have stretched the federal budget thin.

“We’re hoping [the extension] is going to happen,” Allen said, “but it’s not a done deal.”