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Drug company to help improve Virginia’s prescription drug monitoring system

(Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

A major drug company is teaming up with the state of Virginia to help curb “doctor shopping” for narcotics and overprescribing of opioids by physicians.

Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the long-acting painkiller OxyContin, said Thursday it will pay $3.1 million to upgrade the state's prescription drug monitoring program, a database that doctors and other prescribers can check before they offer a patient narcotics. The 11-year-old system is designed to curb “doctor shopping,” by showing prescribers if patients are obtaining narcotics from multiple health-care professionals.

Research has found that the systems, especially when mandatory, are effective. But doctors, who say they are already burdened by paperwork requirements, have complained about the time it takes to log into a separate database and iron out problems with the information they find on their patients.

States are slowly forcing opioid prescribers to confront 'doctor shopping.'

The Virginia pilot program will integrate the narcotics database into electronic health records that physicians already use to keep track of their patients' medical histories. That should reduce the time it takes to check the prescription drug system and make it easier to use, officials said. It also will help them more easily view their patients' drug purchases in other states.

Mark Timney, Purdue Pharma's chief executive, said that while better systems are likely to decrease consumption of opioids such as the ones his company makes, the scale of the drug epidemic requires companies to help curb drug use. “We only want opioids, and certainly our medication, to be prescribed at the right time for the right patient and in the right doses,” he said.

More than 16,000 people died of overdoses from prescription opioids, including methadone, in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every state except Missouri has created a prescription drug monitoring program, and most of those systems call for some form of mandatory action by prescribers. In Virginia, any prescriber who offers a patient 14 days or more of certain controlled substances must check the database, according to William A. Hazel Jr., the state's secretary of health and human resources. He said that a bill likely to be approved this year would cut that to seven days.

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Hazel said the prescription drug monitoring system also had reduced the total number of narcotic prescriptions written in the state.

“This to us is about helping physicians understand what their patients are doing,” said Hazel, an orthopedic surgeon. “We believe in the patient-physician relationship. We trust them and they trust us, and unfortunately it doesn't always work out.”

Purdue Pharma is widely blamed for contributing to the opioid epidemic by fraudulently marketing OxyContin for six years as a formulation of the drug oxycodone that was less prone to abuse. In 2007, the company and three of its executives pleaded guilty in federal court in Virginia to criminal charges that they had misled doctors, patients and regulators about the risk of addiction to OxyContin. The company agreed to pay a $600 million fine for “misbranding” the drug.

Respondents who took part in The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey on long-term, opioid painkiller use share their experiences of living with pain (Video: Monica Akhtar, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)