When a new legislative session opens in Harrisburg next month, lawmakers will confront a lot of the same issues that they left on the table in 2012.
Not all of them are complicated matters that receive widespread attention, such as paying for road and bridge maintenance or funding pension plans for state employees and educators. Some are more straightforward, and they offer legislators an easy opportunity to prove to Pennsylvanians that they can get something accomplished.
Count among those items establishing a state database where health care professionals could easily and quickly determine what prescriptions their patients have been filling for painkillers and other narcotics. Currently, the state attorney general's office collects information about a small subset of powerful drugs, but doctors don't have access to the information.
That means when patients show up in emergency rooms complaining of severe pain, treating physicians can't determine what drugs and how much of them patients have purchased in the past. That lack of information can lead to overprescribing to someone who is abusing medication or underprescribing to someone who suffers from chronic pain.
According to the Pennsylvania Medical Society, all of the states that surround Pennsylvania already have electronic statewide systems.
Hearings were held on a bill in the 2011-12 legislative session and little opposition was voiced, but it was not enacted. A new bill is expected next year, and lawmakers have a chance to improve upon the earlier version.
It is important that the bill not apply to all prescription drugs and that access to the database is limited. Doctors and health care professionals should be able to see information only about their current patients, and law enforcement officials should not be able to exploit the data in fishing expeditions.
Pharmacies should supply the information and the state should manage it. The medical society has launched a campaign to help physicians identify red flags that suggest when patients might be doctor-shopping either because of addictions, abuse or so they illegally can re-sell narcotics for profit. The doctors would like the database to be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs rather than the attorney general's office because they correctly believe that the main goal of the system should be addressing the needs of patients, not hunting for criminal violations.
If enacted by the Legislature, a scrupulously maintained database can help Pennsylvania's health care professionals help their patients.