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Fight against bad medicine: Medical community teams up with law enforcement to combat prescription abuse from the inside

As prescription drug addiction becomes an ever-increasing problem in North Dakota, members of the medical and law enforcement community are working together to try and stop it before it starts.

“It’s becoming a national epidemic,” said John Vastag, co-chairman of Reducing Pharmaceutical Narcotics in our Communities through Education and Awareness statewide taskforce. “In fact, the last numbers I got from (the Centers for Disease Control) that every 19 minutes someone dies from a prescription drug overdose. If we let this get to law enforcement, we missed the opportunity to fix this.”

The task force wants to educate everybody — from parents and teachers to real estate agents, Vastag said.

The task force is less than a year old. It was started by a group of medical professionals and law enforcement agents at the end of the last legislative session, said Vastag, who has held positions at Sanford Health and currently Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota. The group meets monthly.

“We really focus on four key pillars,” Vastag said. They are education, the North Dakota Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, drop sites for unused prescriptions and law enforcement.

Doctors and pharmacists are the first in the line of defense against prescription drug abuse.

“We want to train realtors because one of the key places that these folks that abuse these drugs are getting them is they’re going to open houses and stealing them,” Vastag said.

One of the strongest tools doctors, patients and pharmacists have is the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. It was approved by the State Legislature in 2005 and implemented in 2007, said Mark Hardy, assistant executive director of the program.

Pharmacists are required to send a log of doctor and patient prescriptions each day to the program.

“Most states are weekly or monthly,” Hardy said. “Ours is essentially real-time.”

Only one state — Oklahoma — has real-time prescription reporting, Vastag said.

“Real time means we want to be able to do it so I can’t get a prescription filled today in Fargo and drive to Bismarck and get one this afternoon,” Vastag said.

They also want to get prescription history tied to the electronic medical records, Vastag added.

The program allows doctors and pharmacists to make sure prescriptions don’t interact with patients in a negative way, and to track who is prescribing those drugs.

When investigating doctors and patients, the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners will run a check using the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, executive secretary Duane Houdek said.

“We’re able to look at that and make a determination whether there’s a pattern of prescribing that inappropriate,” Houdek said.

Another effort being made by the task force is to promote proper disposal of unused prescriptions, Vastag said. There are 29 drop sites — including the Law Enforcement Center in Dickinson — where unused prescriptions can be disposed of properly.

Prescription drugs should not be flushed down the toilet because they can contaminate the water supply, Vastag said.

“It’s not a good thing to do,” Vastag said. “It’s much more efficient to bag them all and take them back.”

Vastag added: “What happens then is that the (Drug Enforcement Agency) just goes around to those 29 sites, collects it all, and then brings it to a burn station. We’re fortunate that in North Dakota we actually have a DEA approved burn station.”

Nearly 6,000 pounds of unused prescriptions were destroyed in North Dakota last year, Vastag said.

The task force is also working to educate doctors on prescribing the correct medication and the right amounts to avoid extras in the first place, Vastag said.

“We want to make sure we’re doing what’s in the right interest of the patient, but we also want to make sure that we’re trying to minimize that number of drugs that flow in our communities,” Vastag said.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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