Opioid bill sent to Governor Justice

Legislation awaiting Governor Jim Justice’s signature hopes to hit West Virginia’s opioid epidemic where it is widely believed to have started: the over-prescribing of pain pills.

The Governor proposed the bill that limits initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply for short-term pain, so he will almost certainly sign it.  State lawmakers finished their work on the bipartisan legislation one day prior to adjournment after the Senate agreed to minor changes previously approved by the House of Delegates.

“It is unfortunate that this bill is needed to rein in people in my profession,” said Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, a Huntington doctor.  “But I hope it will help us turn the tide against this horrible epidemic.”

West Virginia had a record-number 887 drug overdose deaths in 2016.   The number dropped to 871 in 2017.

The bill has even tighter controls for opioid prescriptions — a four day supply of pills — issued at emergency rooms and urgent care facilities.   Physicians can write up to a seven-day supply.   Dentists can write a seven-day supply when surgery is preformed, otherwise they are limited to writing a three-day supply as are optometrists.

The legislation does not set limits on pain medications prescribed to cancer and hospice patients or those in a nursing home or other long-term facility.  Prescriptions for existing chronic pain patients — people who started treatment January 1 or earlier — also wouldn’t be subjected to the new restrictions.

“This bill is the product of careful study to balance the needs of patients who have legitimate medical needs against those who have become addicted to those powerful medications,” said House Health Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, also a physician.  “It is a critical step forward in our attempt to eradicate the opioid crisis in our state.”

The bill also requires medical professionals to check the state’s online Controlled Substance Monitoring Database maintained by the WV Board of Pharmacy, which details a patient’s prescription history, before prescribing pain medications.  Doctors also are encouraged to advise patients about alternative treatments for pain, such as physical therapy and massage.

The number of pills prescribed in West Virginia has dropped sharply in recent years following a crackdown on rouge pain pain clinics and “pill mill” pharmacies  Street drugs like fentanyl and heroin are now the leading causes of drug overdose deaths in West Virginia.

Still, state lawmakers have said the pill-restriction legislation will go a long way in stopping the creation of a new generation of West Virginians addicted to pain killers like OxyContin.

The opioid epidemic costs the state more than $8 billion a year, according to a recent American Enterprise Institute study.