Officials Say PA’s Drug Monitoring Program Making An Impact In First 4 Months

Dec 20, 2016

In this Jan. 18, 2013 file photo, Schedule 2 narcotics: Morphine, Sulfate, OxyContin and Opana are displayed for a photograph in Carmichael, Calif.
Credit Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Pennsylvania’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program seems to be performing well  in its first four months, with more than 60,000 health care professionals using the database.

The program, called PDMP for short, launched in August and includes more robust reporting requirements for doctors and pharmacists.

“We have heard from many of our medical professionals … appreciating the fact that they have this data available to help them make more informed decisions when it comes to patient care,” said Lauren Hughes, deputy secretary for health innovation at the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Health care professionals are also given the power to search the state database when working with patients and customers. Though pharmacists were always able to deny any prescription they felt were questionable, the PDMP offers another layer of assurance, said Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association CEO Pat Epple.

“Pharmacists were seeing ridiculous stuff coming through their pharmacy,” Epple said. “They might say, ‘This doesn’t look right,’ but there was no factual basis to say, ‘There’s something wrong here.’”

A year after New Hampshire launched a similar program, the state reported a 5 percent drop in the number of prescriptions written for the strongest types of pain killers.

No such numbers yet exist for Pennsylvania, but Hughes said in the first four months of operation, 64,000 doctors and pharmacists signed up to use the database. The PDMP is handling about 25,000 queries each weekday.

“We have worked hard as an office to get the word out,” Hughes said.

She said the rate of adoption in Pennsylvania has been faster than in other states, though it’s one of the later states to offer such a program. She said the growing awareness around the opioid and heroin crisis has most likely also driven more health care professionals to utilize the PDMP.

“A lot of health professionals have been waiting for this tool to be made available,” she said.

Epple said pharmacists can call the prescribing doctor if they find someone has gotten an unusually high numbers of opioids. It’s something Epple said has received a bit of pushback.

“Some prescribers are reacting very positively to that question and maybe others, because they aren’t quite used to it happening yet, are saying the kind of more, ‘How dare you question my prescribing authority?’” Epple said.

It’s also been a helpful resources for drug enforcement officials, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Patrick Trainor said.

“But (the PDMP is) only a tool to aid our investigations,” Trainor said. “We do not solely rely on using the database to identify the amount of pills a doctor is prescribing.”

The Pennsylvania Attorney General also has access to the database. However, spokesman Jeff Johnson said, “Our investigators are prohibited from data mining the system. Rather, we require reasonable suspicion that a criminal act has occurred to access the PDMP for certain drugs.”

Only after investigators have acquired other evidence can they use the PDMP, he said.

Hughes said the state’s Department of Health has sent details of some suspicious activity to the AG’s office, but has not heard of any final resolutions.

The system is supposed to autonomously scan its data and red flag any suspicious activity, but Hughes said she is unaware of any such warnings in the first four months of operating the database.

She said the database continues to grow, though, and Pennsylvania will begin sharing data with other states early 2017.

“That’s going to be a huge benefit to be able to pull in data from other state’s prescription drug monitoring programs,” she said. “Especially for providers that are practicing near other state borders.”

Also starting in 2017 is a requirement that the Department of Health create a procedure by which it can track down any prescribers or pharmacies that have not yet registered with the PDMP and force them to become part of the program.