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Drug control officials call for monitoring system in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2012 - To some politicians, the debate over whether Missouri should be the only state in the nation without a prescription drug monitoring system is bound up in issues such as the right to privacy and limits on governmental power.

But to Tom Heard of Fenton, the topic is much more personal. On Oct. 1, 2010, his son, Michael, died of a drug overdose at the age of 25. He had dropped out of college after becoming hooked on medication to relieve his anxiety, a habit that Heard said led to the use of heroin, as often is the case.

At a news conference Wednesday that was part of a Missouri prescription drug abuse summit on the Maritz campus in Fenton, Heard said that the state needs a way to spot people who go doctor shopping to get prescription after prescription for opiates. Without such a system, he and others said, doctors have no way of knowing that what they prescribe has already been obtained other places and could lead to a fatal overdose.

“It’s time to move this story from the obituary page to the front page,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the national drug control policy office.

He and others -- including state Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who has tried unsuccessfully to win approval for a monitoring system in Missouri, and David Barton, head of the Midwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area -- rattled off statistic after statistic about the growing problem of drug abuse in Missouri and nearby states.

With more than 300 unintentional poisoning deaths in Missouri last year, and triple-digit percentage increases in recent years in the seizure of illegal drugs, they said that making sure that Missouri enacts a program to match those in other states will help ease the problem and stop making the state one that attracts those in search of prescription drugs.

“Missouri wants to give the impression that we’re open for business,” Engler said, “but this is not the business that we want to be open for.”

Clearly frustrated at the inability of lawmakers to approve a bill that at times had won separate large majorities in both the Senate and the House, Engler blamed what he called a “conspiracy theory” advanced by “right-wing colleagues” that the system would lead to unwarranted government intrusion in the lives of Missourians.

“This is not government interference,” he said. “This is not something that is going to let everybody know what drugs you are going to be taking.”

To the contrary, he said, information on drug purchases and prescriptions is already being collected and recorded. But it is not getting to the doctors who need it when they need it most -- when someone is on their office spinning a story about how bad their pain is and how much they need drugs to deal with it.

“The only people who would be penalized are the people who get multiple scripts,” Engler said.

The monitoring system would provide real-time data that doctors could use to check to see what prescriptions for what medicines patients had already received and avoid making the problem worse.

Calling the monitoring system a “responsible response” to the problem, Engler added:

“We can’t let this go on and let Missouri become the pill capital of America.”

He said that Missouri spends $1.3 billion a year on substance abuse that could better be spent on other basic needs like education or roads.

The biggest roadblock to passage of the bill, Engler said, was Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, a family physician whose filibuster led to the legislation’s demise in the closing weeks of the session.

He was quoted in a story about the filibuster as saying about people who abuse prescription drugs and die as a result:

“If they overdose and kill themselves, it just removes them from the gene pool.”

For Tom Heard, who said his son’s death “has redefined my life and the life of my family,” the fight for a monitoring system comes from the exact opposite direction.

After his son graduated from Rockwood Summit High School and went to college at what was then Southwest Missouri State University, he suffered from anxiety that was bad enough he sought to relieve it with Xanax, then OxyContin, and finally heroin.

Since becoming heavily involved in anti-drug efforts, particularly speaking to students, Heard said he has learned that such a progression is as common as it is inadvertent.

He said that Michael “wasn’t really that much different from your child or your neighbor’s child. ... I make no excuses for him. He made his own decisions as an adult.”

The idea that needs to be emphasized, Heard added, is that “addiction isn’t a moral failure. It’s a terrible affliction, with many causes.”

And, said Barton, people who move from opiate painkillers by prescription to heroin often do so because it’s both easier to get and often cheaper.

“Opiate abuse expands the heroin market,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

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