A critical tool NC needs for fighting drug abuse

North Carolina lawmakers have an opportunity this session to help our state take advantage of a critical new tool to fight against prescription drug abuse, which claims the lives of more than 1,000 North Carolinians every year.

House Bill 744 would ensure insurance coverage for painkillers with so-called abuse deterrent formulations. While these prescription medications are opioids just like Vicodin or Percocet and help patients manage pain, they are much more difficult to use illicitly. That’s because they have absolutely no potency when crushed, injected or manipulated by a potential abuser.

Because they have historically been so easy to abuse, prescription painkillers are the most deadly drug in North Carolina. Abuse-deterrent formulations represent a critical step to help address this epidemic of prescription drug abuse facing our state. Prescription drug abusers often snort or inject painkillers, so the fact that these medications lose their high when manipulated makes them more difficult to misuse and far less likely to lead to overdoses.

The reality is that prescription opioids are a vital treatment option for many people. They allow patients to heal without pain and also provide a way for the thousands of North Carolinians suffering from chronic pain to go on with their daily lives.

And while programs like Community Care of North Carolina’s Project Lazarus have made great strides to improve safe-prescribing practices and ensure that opioids are not prescribed to drug-seekers, we know that the vast majority of drug abusers do not obtain painkillers from a physician. In fact, more than 70 percent of Americans who abuse prescription pain relievers get them from friends or relatives, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

We have all heard the stories of teenagers cleaning out their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets looking for these pain medicines. While patients should be diligent in keeping their medications in a safe place, abuse-deterrent painkillers provide an extra layer of protection against such misuse.

If abuse-deterrent opioids could become the new standard in safe prescribing, we could help decrease the likelihood of overdoses and ease of abuse, even when these medications fall into the wrong hands.

Having practiced pain medicine for more than a decade, I know the value that abuse-deterrent formulations bring for physicians, patients and the battle against prescription drug abuse. The sad fact is that some insurance companies in our state are making it difficult for physicians to prescribe these drugs, or classifying them in such a way that makes them an unaffordable option for patients.

Without action at the state level, access-abuse deterrent medications will be limited, and so will their ability to help in North Carolina’s battle against prescription drug abuse.

Shehzad Choudry, M.D., of Raleigh is a member of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, Pain Society of the Carolinas, the American Academy of Neurology and the North Carolina Medical Society.