North Carolina Sheriffs Want To Know Who Is Taking Painkillers

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Wow, is this ever a terrible idea.

Sheriffs in North Carolina want access to state computer records identifying anyone with prescriptions for powerful painkillers and other controlled substances.

The state sheriff’s association pushed the idea Tuesday, saying the move would help them make drug arrests and curb a growing problem of prescription drug abuse…

Sheriffs made their pitch Tuesday to a legislative health care committee looking for ways to confront prescription drug abuse. Local sheriffs said that more people in their counties die of accidental overdoses than from homicides.

For years, sheriffs have been trying to convince legislators that the state’s prescription records should be open to them.

“We can better go after those who are abusing the system,” said Lee County Sheriff Tracy L. Carter.

In addition to the obvious privacy, doctor-patient privilege, and Fourth Amendment concerns, a policy like this is likely to exacerbate the undertreatment of pain. The sheriffs argue that giving them access to the database will help them catch doctors who over-prescribe and patients who shop from doctor to doctor when they’re denied access to painkillers. I’m sure there are examples of both misbehaving doctors and patients. But in the past, law enforcement officials’ definition of over-prescribing has sharply diverged from that of pain professionals. High-dose opiate therapy, a promising new treatment for chronic pain, has basically been cut off at the knees because of high-profile cases in which DEA officials, U.S. attorneys, and state and local law enforcement with no medical training have taken it upon themselves to decide what is and isn’t appropriate treatment.

And the problem is self-perpetuating. As more doctors leave pain management out of fear, those left feel pressure to take on more patients. And the fewer doctors willing to prescribe pain patients the meds they need, the more doctors legitimate patients need to see to find one who will give them proper treatment. Both are consequences of bad policy. And both are then considered by law enforcement to be signs of abuse.

Letting cops go fishing in patient databases for these “red flags” is only going to make it all worse. Sure, they may well find a few unscrupulous doctors, and perhaps some people who are using doctors to feed an addiction. But one thing that’s almost certain to happen is that doctors are going to become even more fearful that every script is going to be scrutinized. Which means fewer of them will be willing to write them. Which means more pain patients are going to suffer, despite the fact that there are drugs available to help them.

My archive of pain treatment posts here.

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53 Responses to “North Carolina Sheriffs Want To Know Who Is Taking Painkillers”

  1. #1 |  Caliguy58 | 

    This is by far the most ignorant idea I ever heard. Who do these Sheriff’s think they are to be making medical judgments about the prescription of pain medications. It’s sheer stupidity and should be nipped in the bud.

  2. #2 |  “North Carolina Sheriffs Want To Know Who Is Taking Painkillers” | 

    […] For your own good, of course — and so that they can make more arrests. [Radley Balko] […]

  3. #3 |  Justice | 

    I cant believe how much this starting to effect everything, patients in hospitals, dentist offices etc.
    I was in the Er on news year 2011, and while there I was giving morphine because I was in tremodous pain. The morphine made me sick but it helped, and then after the hospital had no answers for why I was in pain, they sent me home in pain with 5mg loratabs. Now that is not right.
    Today I had two filling, a root canal and all my teeth buffered to removes stains, and I was sent home with Motrin, my mouth hurts so bad right now and all the dentist is offering is tylenol 3..
    This is effecting everyone I know! Some people really need pain medication and they need it “for there pain, and not to sell”. Maybe the sherrifs need to look into that, because this is the reason why people are seeking to buy them off the streets. Yes N.C. cut everyone off of narcotic’s and then see what kindof problem you will have then!
    I agree yes people abuse them, and they overdose on them, but some of us like me do need these meds for pain!