Combating abuse of prescription drugs here in Ohio

Rob Portman
In the last decade, prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in parts of Ohio. It has devastated the lives and livelihoods of individual Ohioans, as well as the wellbeing of their families and communities.

It has caused a spike in crimes, especially theft, as addicts have looked for ways to support their addictions. This has doubly strained law enforcement as they fight drug trafficking. It has also served as a gateway to other drug use, including heroin.

It has led to public health challenges. Sadly, since 2007 drug overdoses have moved ahead of car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio. We’ve also seen record levels of Hepatitis C infection from needle sharing. In Scioto County in southern Ohio on the Ohio River, almost one-tenth of babies born in 2010 came into the world with drugs in their systems.

To compound the problem, there are the financial costs. Fatal and nonfatal overdoses now cost Ohio taxpayers $3.7 billion annually in hospital and other expenses. Yes – billion, not million.

But there is some good news to report in the fight against drug abuse. In some parts of our state where this prescription drug epidemic has taken hold, we have made progress. Scioto and Adams Counties are good examples.

In these two counties, the hard work of law enforcement, local, state and federal officials, along with the support of community groups, family members and others, is strengthening all three fronts in our efforts against prescription drug abuse: enforcement, prevention and treatment.

As I saw beginning in the 1990s when I founded and chaired the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati, a community commitment to prevention is critical to getting a handle on this problem. Since the Coalition was established in 1996, drug abuse has declined in greater Cincinnati by about 30 percent. Community leaders in Scioto and Adams Counties are showing that same commitment, working together across sectors — from health care to law enforcement to our schools and churches — to produce healthier and safer communities.

Congress has a role to play, too. We can help by adding smart tools that the folks on the front lines need to fight this epidemic. Last July, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House, came to Portsmouth, Ohio for a town hall on prescription drug abuse. Along with community leaders, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and others, we asked him to designate Scioto and Adams Counties as federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs). We succeeded in convincing him, and the designations came through in October, allowing these jurisdictions to better coordinate among law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, and giving them much needed resources to fight an interstate, and thus federal, problem.

The new HIDTA designations come on top of collective efforts that are already making a difference. In Scioto County there was a 17 percent decrease in accidental overdoses and a 42 percent decrease in drug-related deaths from 2010 to 2011. In December, law enforcement shut down the last of the infamous “pill mills,” which existed to distribute painkillers to addicts.

Another critical tool is a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). This is a database that allows a state to identify abuse by monitoring and tracking the dispensing of prescription medications by health care providers. Forty-one states have PDMPs, and preliminary research has shown PDMPs to be highly effective in stemming the tide of abuse.

There’s a hiccup, however. The different state PDMPs can’t communicate with each other — even though drug trafficking is an interstate problem. This is particularly the case in Scioto County, which is right across the Ohio River from Kentucky and near West Virginia.

In fact, this was one of the challenges we discussed with Director Kerlikowske at the Portsmouth town hall, where I talked about my work to put together legislation to address this issue. That legislation has now been introduced and last week I was able to pass an amendment to Food and Drug Administration reauthorization legislation that will enable PDMPs to securely communicate with each other. I am now working with the House of Representatives to include it in the final legislation. As Hillsboro, Ohio Police Chief Nick Thomas said after the amendment passed, “we’ve needed this for a long time.”

There’s still a long road ahead in the fight against prescription drug abuse and drug abuse in general, but working together we can help protect our families and communities and make Ohio a better and healthier place to live.

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.