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INTRO: The president has nearly doubled funding to prevent prescription drug abuse in the nation to 138 million dollars over the next two years. The administration's Drug Czar John Walters visited Las Vegas last week to announce a strategy modeled in part after a Nevada program. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: Nevadan's took out nearly 3 million prescriptions last year, consuming more than 121 million doses. There are now more prescriptions in Nevada than there are residents of the state according to the state's prescription controlled Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force. 20 other states keep similar statistics but Nevada was singled by the White House Drug Czar John Walters last week as more advanced than other states in maintaining statistics and praised the state for focusing on treatment instead of prosecution of prescription drug abusers. Walters met with law enforcement and medical professionals last week like Mel Pohl, Medical director off the Las Vegas Recovery Center who know the prescription drug problem well.
POHL: Because of the 24-7 nature of the town, I see a lot of patients who are mis-using prescription medications and you can go into any casino where they work and they can get any supply and so we may have a network of availability that isn't available everywhere, not because it is a casino town, but because it is a 24-7 town.
PLASKON: Clark County Sheriff Bill Young saw the results first hand - when obvious prescription drug abusers would try to fill invalid prescriptions.
YOUNG: When I was working in Vice and Narcotics, it was a number of years ago, but every pharmacy calls virtually every day one or two or three people who are in there trying to get a prescription filled.
PLASKON: So many people under the influence clogged emergency rooms at the time that law enforcement and healthcare providers banded together to fund a drug treatment center last year - West Care in northwest Las Vegas. That's where they held this meeting. In this first year of operation this facility has handled nearly double the number of patients it expected, 7 thousand. Many of them are now identified by Nevada's unique prescription monitoring system that records how many pills Nevadan's are popping. It tracks the names of patients, prescriptions filled and under whom. Last year physicians filed more than 15 thousand requests for information about prescriptions filled under their names. West Care's Director Dick Steinberg knows what they find.
STEINBERG: We have had doctors ask for information and they suddenly say, wait a minute, Kieth McDonald is getting drugs from me and I don't even know who he is. What is going on?
PLASKON: Steinburg says when doctors find unexplained prescriptions they correct the problem by investigating their offices or calling authorities and alleged non-patients like the Kieth McDonald end up in treatment. White House Drug Czar John Walters said he likes the data collection and wants to expand it from a paper system in Nevada to a national electronic system.
WALTERS: A medical professional when prescribing a substance can go into a database and know whether the person they are prescribing to has had this prescription given to them this morning at three other places and understand what the background is here and know if they need to get someone some help for their dependency.
PLASKON: Expanding the database was just one of four goals Walters outlined at the meeting. He also called for better labeling and education of doctors on the addictive qualities of prescription drugs.
WALTERS: Many, many practitioners feel uncomfortable about this and in fact this causes them to not prescribe legitimate and useful medicines because of they are afraid that there is an abuse potential.
PLASKON: And he wants better education of medical professionals to recognize the signs of addiction. Finally he said the administration will go after on-line pharmacies by attacking payment sources using unspecified DEA tools and cut off their suppliers in as soon as three months. This is the second time Walters has visited Las Vegas to make a pledge. Two years ago he relayed this promise.
WALTERS: The president has set a national goal of reducing drug use by 10 percent in two years and 25 percent in five years.
PLASKON: 2003 drug use statistics won't be available until December next year to indicate if the president is succeeding in that goal, but at the time of Walter's speech, non-medical prescription drug use was rising a few percentage points a year according to the U-S Department of Health and Human Services. That trend may have reversed here according to the Nevada Youth Risk Behavior Survey released this year. It's results show a percentage point drop in the use of prescription drugs among high schoolers. A national survey of high schoolers in 2003 by the University of Michigan reported similar findings -drops in all categories of drug . . . use except one. High schoolers around the nation are increasingly using OxyContin and Vicodin . . . painkillers.