published Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Georgia lawmaker seeks stricter laws on pain clinics

  • photo
    FILE- In this Aug. 5, 2010, file photo, a pharmacy tech poses for a picture with hydrocodone bitartrate and acetaminophen tablets, the generic version of Vicodin, at Oklahoma Hospital Discount Pharmacy in Edmond, Okla. Sales of the nation’s two most popular prescription painkillers have exploded in new parts of the country, an Associated Press analysis shows, worrying experts who say the push to relieve patients’ suffering is spawning an addiction epidemic. From New York’s Staten Island to Santa Fe, N.M., Drug Enforcement Administration figures show dramatic rises between 2000 and 2010 in the distribution of oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Prescription drug overdoses are a widely discussed epidemic across Georgia, and Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander sees the problem's effects often.

This year, Hullander said, she has seen between 30 and 40 deaths from drug overdoses in the county of 64,000. And she's tired of having to explain to shocked families how their father, mother or child died from a overdose, she said.

"That is way too many for a county this size," Hullander said.

Georgia has been debating how to rein in access to pain killers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone and tranquilizers such as Xanax prescribed at a growing number of pain management clinics.

While some clinics are legitimate, the ones known as "pill mills" often write and fill hundreds of prescriptions a day while operating under few guidelines.

Some cities have tried to ban pain management clinics altogether. Catoosa County has limited how pills can be prescribed to the public.

In the General Assembly this year, Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, came close to seeing the Pain Management Clinic Act passed. The act would have forced all clinics to be licensed through the Georgia Composite Medical Board.

But the proposed law didn't pass the Senate on the last day in session. Weldon said he will push it again in the coming year.

"I don't want to [stop] one person doing the right thing to help patients," he said. "But we have to do something with controlling the flow of these drugs."

Anyone now can own a clinic. The bill that Weldon will resurrect in January says clinics must be owned by licensed physicians, and it would require clinics themselves to be licensed. The clinics would have to renew their licenses every two years.

Hullander said the bill is a good start to heading off dangerous access to prescription drugs. But she said people have to be educated to realize how deadly those drugs can be. Many of the overdoses she handles are accidental, and most involve people in their mid-30s to 50s, she said.

Sometimes people take more pills than the recommended dosage after their bodies build up a tolerance to a drug, she said.

"I don't know how we are going to educate our kids better," she said.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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