Heck calls for shift in drug war funding

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck didn’t surprise me when he opposed state Sen. Tick Segerblom’s idea that a pharmaceutical company should turn over the names of doctors suspected of overprescribing the painkillers it manufactured.

“I don’t think it’s a role for the pharmaceutical companies,” Heck told me Tuesday.

He reasoned regulatory agencies have access to the same reporting information as the pharmaceutical companies, so the regulators should be responsible for regulating doctors who overprescribe.

Then the former emergency room doctor-turned-GOP congressman said the unexpected: “I think if we’d shift money from the war on illicit drugs to the war on prescription drugs that we’d be better served nationally.”

State and federal funds would be better spent trying to police the bigger problem, prescription drug abuse, he said.

Last Friday, in the aftermath of a Los Angeles Times story about the abuse of prescription drugs, Segerblom wrote to Purdue Pharma LP, saying the company had an ethical duty to turn over information about doctors who overprescribe OxyContin, the addictive painkiller it manufactures.

The Times reported that the company has a database of 1,800 doctors who may have overprescribed the painkiller. The kicker: Since 2002, the company has referred only 154 cases to authorities.

When “Oxy” is crushed and snorted, it provides a rush like heroin, making it a popular street drug.

Heck said the Drug Enforcement Administration, the state Pharmacy Board and the state Medical Board of Examiners have access to the information the drug companies have, and they should be regulating prescription drug abuse, not the drug manufacturers.

“The information is there,” he said. “The regulators need to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do, which is regulate.”

The Nevada boards will say they are underfunded and unable to do as many investigations as they’d like. That’s when Heck suggested money spent on the war on drugs should be shifted to a war on prescription drugs.

I didn’t see that coming.

Heck agreed with Segerblom on two points. Marijuana shouldn’t be classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and that he sees “some medicinal purposes” for marijuana. The DEA lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, placing it in the same classification as heroin, peyote, meth and Ecstasy.

Nevada has an online database of patients and prescriptions available to doctors and pharmacists, one tool to make it easier to track which doctors are treating painkillers like M&Ms and also making it more difficult for patients to obtain multiple prescriptions of painkillers by doctor shopping.

In 2011, Senate Bill 168, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Joe Hardy, a Boulder City doctor, would have helped track deaths caused by prescription drug abuse by requiring that such deaths be reported to medical boards.

I thought it was a good idea.

Naturally, it was cut from the final bill because it was deemed “too expensive.”

But it would have given regulators a starting point to investigate prescription drug abuse.

Hardy wanted the coroner to report to the Board of Medical Examiners and the Board of Osteopathic Medicine the deaths that seem tied to prescription drug abuse. That too was cut. Clark County alone has an estimated 400 to 500 deaths a year like that.

Also stripped from the bill was a provision that would have given the state Board of Pharmacy and the coroner the right to tell the two medical boards when doctors who wrote prescriptions that were 95 percent higher than others in their specialties.

With his medical background, Heck knows this issue better than most, so when he says shift dollars away from the war on illegal drugs to war against prescription drug abuse, his views sound like common sense. From his lips to state and federal budget builders’ ears.

Give ’em the money, honey.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275.