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Pennsylvania Gets 'B' on Pain Medication Report Card

When it comes to prescribing pain medications for patients with chronic diseases, Pennsylvania is doing OK – but could be doing better.

That’s according to the 2013 "Achieving Balance in State Pain Policy: A Progress Report Card," which gave the commonwealth a “B” grade.

The report card was created by the University of Wisconsin Pain & Policy Studies Group and was funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), its Cancer Action Network (CAN) and LIVESTRONG.

“What we do state by state the last couple years is measure the policy environment for patients – cancer patients in particular in our case – to be able to access prescriptions drugs that they need to maintain a certain quality of life,” said David Woodmansee, ASC CAN associate director of state and local campaigns.

He said these prescriptions drugs – opioids such as oxycodone and OxyContin – are essential for patients battling these diseases.

“When you’re in severe pain, whether it be from cancer or from some other serious disease, the pain can sometimes be at such a level and so debilitating that you can’t sleep, you have problems eating, you may have issues with work or may not even be able to work,” Woodmansee said. “And simple day to day relationships with family and friends can be difficult.”

According to Woodmansee, one of the state’s weaknesses is its outdated Controlled Substances Act.

“Pennsylvania’s not the only one in that situation, the original definition (of addiction) is 35, 40 years old and a lot of states, when they passed it, when they passed their original Control Substances Act, (they) adopted that because it was state-of-the-art back then, it just hasn’t been modified and that’s the problem,” Woodmansee said.

He said a recent slew of legislation has muddled the definition even more and has actually made it more challenging and confusing for doctors to prescribe the drugs.

However, officials worry that prescriptions drugs provide a gateway to heroin addiction.

Woodmansee said he understands that law enforcement is just trying to curtail drug abuse and diversion  in Pennsylvania, which ranks 14th in the country for drug overdose mortality rate.

“But what we ask for while that is happening is that we remember to have a balance of policies and that on the other side of that equation are cancer patients that legitimately, legally, medically need these drugs to get through their day and night with some level of a decent quality of life,” Woodmansee said.

The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) and the Department of Health is in the process of creating a task force called the Safe and Effective Prescribing Practices and Pain Management – which Woodmansee said is a step in the right direction.

The task force, which includes health care professionals and representatives of associations and regulatory agencies, aims to create guidelines balancing the need for pain medications for non-cancer patients while battling the drugs’ potential for addiction.

He said another step the state can take to improve its grade is to adopt the updated policies introduced in 2013 by the Federation of State Medical Boards.

“It would allow doc(tor)s in your state to know exactly what the rules of the game are, exactly what the parameters are of prescribing pain medications to cancer patients and others,” Woodmansee said. “And in the long run what it would do, it would make it easier for cancer patients to be able to access these medications because doctors wouldn’t feel like: ‘Geeze I’m confused, I don’t know what rules I’m supposed to be following here.’”

The House and Senate are considering bills that would create a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in Pennsylvania. 

Programs like these have already been adopted and have helped reduce abuse and addiction in other states such as Ohio.