More treatment needed to deal with painkiller abuse, expert witness tells Senate caucus; McConnell says jail helps, too

Addiction to prescription painkillers, and increased addiction to heroin by people originally hooked on prescription medicine, is “a public health disaster of catastrophic proportions” that “was caused by the medical community,” the chief medical officer of a New York drug-treatment program said at a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday.

“The medical community, including dentists, must prescribe more cautiously,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Phoenix House told the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. In areas where abuse is rampant, “Treatment capacity does not come close to meeting demand,” he said. “If we don’t rapidly expand access to treatment, the outlook is grim.” He also called for better education of physicians about the risks of prescribing painkillers.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky attended the first several minutes of the hearing and read a statement calling for the problem to be attacked by a combination of treatment and incarceration, with the use of multi-agency partnerships. He also said, “It’s clear that the increase in heroin addiction is tied to our fight against prescription drug abuse.”

Part of that fight included requiring Kentucky doctors to participate in the state’s prescription-drug monitoring program, which Kolodny said made the state one of only three with such a requirement. The others are New York and Tennessee.

Officials have said that when Kentucky cracked down on disreputable “pill mill” pain clinics, making prescriptions harder to get, addicts turned to heroin. “Heroin is just a symbol for the prescription-drug problem,” Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the senators.

Rannazzisi said the largely successful effort against pill mills in Florida has driven them to Georgia and Tennessee. He said Tennessee has 300 pain clinics. “They’re moving north and west,” he said. “Regulatory boards in the states need to take control.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democratic co-chair of the caucus, said the testimony made prescription-painkiller and heroin abuse seem worse than the drug problems she dealt with as mayor of San Francisco in the 1980s. “Nothing like today,” she said. “I am really struck.”

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