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Prescription drug abuse database passes 100,000 entries

 ROANOKE, Va. -- More than 114,000 prescriptions filled at pharmacies across western Virginia have been entered into a database designed to identify drug abusers who con doctors into giving them painkillers.

The prescription monitoring program, approved by the General Assembly last year as a pilot program, began operation in September.

Authorities hope by tracking prescriptions for drugs such as OxyContin and methadone, they'll be able to curb the practice of "doctor shopping," in which drug abusers go to multiple physicians and feign ailments to obtain their drug of choice.

Since it started Sept. 11, the database has grown to include more than 114,000 prescriptions filled at about 300 pharmacies in a region that stretches from Appomattox County to the westernmost tip of the state.

The state Department of Health Professions, responsible for maintaining the database, has received just one inquiry so far, director Robert Nebiker said. But as with any database, Nebiker said, the system is expected to become more valuable as time passes. An advisory committee overseeing the operation also is discussing ways to educate physicians about the system.

Law enforcement officials may access the system, but only in investigations that already have started.

Nebiker said that in other states with similar programs, 80 percent to 90 percent of the inquiries come from doctors. A physician or dentist who wants to check if a patient is receiving drugs from other doctors must first get a release signed by the patient before seeking a prescription history report from the database.

The database is limited to prescriptions for Schedule II drugs, or those with the highest potential for abuse. Eighteen other states have prescription monitoring systems. Calls for such a program in Virginia began in 2001, when OxyContin abuse in far Southwest Virginia led to widespread crime, addiction and fatal overdoses.

While OxyContin abuse remains a problem, authorities have since noticed a growing problem with methadone, a synthetic narcotic used as a painkiller and a form of treatment for addicts of opium-based drugs.

Last year, 62 people died from methadone overdoses in the western half of Virginia, said Dr. William Massello of the medical examiner's office in Roanoke. The methadone that caused the overdoses appeared to have been tablets prescribed by physicians for pain, Massello said, and not the liquid form of the drug used by methadone clinics.