The Oklahoma medical examiner will begin directly reporting the names of overdose victims to the state narcotics agency, which will then use the data to more closely track the state’s prescription drug problem.
The new requirement, part of a bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Mary Fallin, could also be used to identify problem prescribers.
“It gets more specific information to (the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) to more target its investigation,” said Steve Mullins, general counsel to Fallin.
A failure of state agencies to promptly share information about overdose victims and to trace the prescribers of drugs that result in overdose deaths was among several findings of an investigation earlier this year by The Oklahoman and Oklahoma Watch. The investigation identified troubling gaps in the state’s system for combating an epidemic that has seen Oklahoma surge to near the top of national rankings for prescription drug abuse and overdose deaths.
In 2012, unintentional prescription drug overdoses claimed the lives of 534 Oklahomans. State health authorities say about half of them had taken drugs prescribed by their doctors.
The new law, requested by the medical examiner’s office and supported by Fallin, also requires the medical examiner to determine whether drugs were the primary cause of death in such cases. Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 1183, said he asked for the provision to clarify what role alcohol, pre-existing health conditions or other factors may have played in the death..
“Before we implicate it is the drugs that caused it, let’s know the drugs caused it,” he said. “I think it’s such a big issue; I think we need to be armed with all the facts.”
The new reporting law, which takes effect Nov. 1, is part of an overall prescription drug abuse prevention plan that Fallin has pushed during the last two legislative sessions. The cornerstone of that program — a measure that would require doctors to check their patients’ drug histories before writing new prescriptions for controlled dangerous substances such as oxycodone and hydrocodone — remains stalled while lawmakers wrangle over its provisions.
“We haven’t done anything yet to address the issue,” Mullins said Wednesday. “You’ve basically added some good tools, but if we don’t pass the PMP (Prescription Monitoring Program) bill, all those others tools are not really effective. I really want to stress that what matters is the PMP bill has to get through the legislature and get to our desk this session or we will not be able to move the needle on this crisis in Oklahoma.”
Rep. Doug Cox, House author of the prescription check legislation, said he was consulting with the governor’s office, other lawmakers and the Oklahoma State Medical Association in an effort to reach final agreement on its provisions.
“I’m still working on getting everybody on the same page,” said Cox, an emergency room physician in Grove. “It’s still under negotiation, and we hear that it’s probably going to be one of the last things we do (before adjournment).”
Cox’s bill, SB 1820, would require doctors, physician assistants, advanced practiced nurses and other prescribers to check the online monitoring program before writing new or refill prescriptions for commonly abused narcotic drugs.
Although it has Fallin’s backing, the measure has been resisted by some physicians and lawmakers who contend it will impose a time-consuming administrative burden on doctors who frequently prescribe narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs.
Cox said it appeared unlikely that the bill’s final provisions would be determined this week. The 2014 legislative session is set to adjourn no later than May 30.