Lawmakers call for clampdown on prescription drug abuse

Legislators want the federal government to crack down on prescription drug abuse, which they warn is a national crisis.

Lawmakers on Friday were united in their concern about pharmaceuticals, which represent the second largest sector of abused drugs in the country, though also cautious not to take pain relief out of the hands of those who need it.

"It is abundantly clear that the prescription drug abuse epidemic is a crisis in the U.S.," said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce's Health subcommittee.

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"However, while we discuss this complicated and dynamic issue we need to keep in mind that many of these medications that so many are abusing are critical for many patients living with chronic pain," he added.

In 2010, more than 22,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription drugs, accounting for nearly 60 percent of all overdoses that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One way to target abusers without hurting legitimate patients is to go after so-called "pill mills," which are clinics or offices that illegally distribute medication.

Enforcement agencies shouldn't have a hard time finding them, some on the panel maintained.

"They advertise, so we're very fortunate," said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), while waving an ad from a Florida newspaper that promised coupons for cheap drugs. "If I can find them, how come the Board of Pharmacy can't? How come law enforcement can't?"

Legislators also pressed the administration to increase their control on hydrocodone drugs like Vicodin by reclassifying them from a Schedule III drug, defined as substances with a moderate potential for dependence, to Schedule II, considered to have a higher potential for abuse and dependence. As a Schedule II substance, hydrocodone would be regulated the same as methadone or oxycodone. 

"This change is needed to adequately reflect the potential risk these drugs pose to public health," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

In March, lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced legislation to force regulators to reschedule the drug, require a prescription except in emergency cases and increase penalties for traffickers. The bills in both chambers, however, have languished in committees ever since.

The Obama administration has not taken a formal position on the proposal, and federal drug control officials on Friday declined to directly support it.

"We have strongly encouraged the science-based evaluation for the scheduling," offered Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Congress also has a role in funding the National All Schedules Prescription Electronic Reporting Act, which it has not done for two years. That 2005 law gives states money for programs to monitor prescription drugs and abusers, which 46 currently have up and running and another three have authorized.

"We should authorize and fight to fund" that law, said Burgess.

Without that federal funding, "we've shifted our focus from that effort to other technologies," Westley Clark, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's substance abuse treatment center, told the panel.

That shift of focus has included encouraging states to implement electronic medical records. Those systems will be able to transfer information about patients immediately, which officials said should align state systems and help doctors identify scammers and people who have negative reactions to various prescriptions.