People filling their first painkiller prescriptions in Utah would be limited to seven days’ worth of medicine at a time under a legislative proposal designed to head off opiate addiction in the Beehive State. And doctors directing pharmacists to dispense the drugs would have to first run their patients’ information through a database with prescription histories by name.
A panel of House lawmakers at the Capitol Wednesday ran out of time to vote on House Bill 90 after hearing concerns it could inadvertently make the drugs easier to get, instead of harder. But the debate over how best to curb Utah opiate overdoses—approaching two per day—will continue.
The drugs need the extra regulation in Utah because they are “very useful but very dangerous,” bill sponsor and physician Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, told the House Health and Human Services Committee. The measure seeks to build on already existing legislation that established the database.
Someone on opiates for one month has a 42 percent chance of being addicted three years later, Ward told the panel. Ward said he has seen close-up how the highly addictive substances affect people. His brother-in-law took Percocet after a bike accident, and when he first stopped taking the medicine two weeks later, he felt terrible—but not because of pain from his injuries. He realized he was going through withdrawal, Ward said, and stopped taking the pills altogether.
The seven-day limit falls in line with Centers for Disease Control recommendations, and would pertain to anyone who has gone without filling an opiate prescription in the last 90 days. Ward said five other states have had passed the same limit.
But not everyone thinks Utah should be the sixth. Committee member Rep. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, said he believed doctors already have the training and know-how to properly prescribe and said “there are ways to game the system” no matter what lawmakers do.
Ward acknowledged some physicians may choose to skirt the law by writing an additional one-week prescription, but said he thought the law would by and large be a meaningful check on doctors.
A representative with Utah’s workers’ compensation office agreed, telling the panel that trusting physicians to be ethical and careful is not enough, and pointing to Utah’s 2015 record-high number of opiate deaths.
But Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, said she had concerns doctors could write multiple one-week prescriptions and a patient’s family member could sell or use the drugs. The database, McOmber said, also is problematic because the software times out quickly and is difficult for emergency room providers to use during their rapid-pace shifts.
“What we don’t want is an unintended consequence here,” McOmber said, adding she believes more discussion on the measure is needed. “We want a good solution to the problems.”
Ward said he is working on a substitute bill that could come before the committee later in the legislative session, which ends in March.