Prescription Drugs:

State Monitoring Programs May Help to Reduce Illegal Diversion

GAO-04-524T: Published: Mar 4, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 4, 2004.

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Marcia G. Crosse
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The increasing diversion of prescription drugs for illegal purposes or abuse is a disturbing trend in the nation's battle against drug abuse. Diversion can include such activities as prescription forgery and "doctor shopping" by individuals who visit numerous physicians to obtain multiple prescriptions. The most frequently diverted prescription drugs are controlled substances that are prone to abuse, addiction, and dependence, such as hydrocodone (the active ingredient in Lortab and many other drugs) and oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin and many other drugs). Some states use prescription drug monitoring programs to control illegal diversion of prescription drugs that are controlled substances. GAO was asked to examine (1) how state monitoring programs compare in terms of their objectives and operation and (2) the impact of state monitoring programs on illegal diversion of prescription drugs. This testimony is based on GAO's report, Prescription Drugs: State Monitoring Programs Provide Useful Tool to Reduce Diversion, GAO-02-634 (May 17, 2002). In that report, the programs in Kentucky, Utah, and Nevada were selected for more in-depth study because they were the most recently established programs at the time.

GAO found that the 15 state monitoring programs in place in 2002 differed in their objectives and operation. The programs were intended to facilitate the collection, analysis, and reporting of information about the prescribing, dispensing, and use of controlled substances. They provided data and analysis to state law enforcement and regulatory agencies to assist in identifying and investigating activities potentially related to illegal drug diversion. The programs could be used by physicians to check a patient's prescription drug history to determine if the individual was doctor shopping to seek multiple controlled substances. Some programs also offered educational programs for the public, physicians, and pharmacists regarding the nature and extent of the problem and medical treatment options for abusers of diverted drugs. The programs varied primarily in terms of the specific drugs they covered and the type of state agency in which they were housed. Some programs covered only those prescription drugs that are most prone to abuse and addiction, whereas others provided more extensive coverage. In addition, most programs were administered by a state law enforcement agency, a state department of health, or a state board of pharmacy. GAO also found that state monitoring programs may have realized benefits in their efforts to reduce drug diversion. These included improving the timeliness of law enforcement and regulatory investigations. Each of the three states studied reduced its investigation time by at least 80 percent. In addition, law enforcement officials told GAO that they view the programs as a deterrent to doctor shopping, because potential diverters are aware that any physician from whom they seek a prescription may first examine their prescription drug utilization histories based on monitoring program data. For example, as drug diverters became aware of Kentucky's ability to trace their drug histories, they tended to move their diversion activities to nearby nonmonitored states.

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