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Editorial

To stop addicts, doctors should register their prescriptions

THE DOWNWARD spiral of too many Massachusetts overdose victims started with a prescription painkiller. Narcotics like morphine, Vicodin, and OxyContin play an important role in treating pain. But with such great risk for addiction and abuse, they also need to be carefully regulated — which is why Beacon Hill should put aside objections from some doctors and embrace legislation to step up drug monitoring in the Commonwealth.

A bill moving through the Legislature would require all doctors who prescribe painkillers to check a statewide database that tracks narcotic prescriptions before writing a new one. The database is meant to identify “doctor shopping’’ by patients trying to obtain extra pills to feed their addiction.

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Participation in the state database is now voluntary, and only 1,700 Massachusetts doctors have signed up; many do not know the registry exists, or that two years ago it transitioned from cumbersome paper records to a quicker online system that takes about two minutes to use. The proposed legislation would require high-volume prescribers to join the database by the beginning of 2013, and the rest of the state’s doctors to join as their licenses for prescribing controlled substances come up for renewal.

Most states have drug monitoring programs. Several states, including Nevada, Ohio, and Delaware, have passed laws that require doctors who prescribe narcotics to check their databases. The databases not only help identify drug dealers, but alert doctors to patients whose prescription patterns indicate they may be in need of addiction treatment. The Massachusetts bill, which passed the state Senate last week by a unanimous vote, is part of broader package of legislation targeting opioid abuse; the bill also includes an important Good Samaritan provision for people who report drug overdoses, ensuring they won’t face prosecution for drug possession themselves.

The Massachusetts Medical Society backs the Good Samaritan portion of the bill, but has called on the Legislature to water down the database requirement, fearing it would create excessive burdens on doctors. But the need to stem the tide of prescription drug abuse clearly outweighs the inconvenience.

Few who are well along in their professional lives welcome new requirements, especially ones that require going online. But they are quickly mastered and adapted into professional routines, even for tech-phobic users. And doctors, whose conversion to electronic record-keeping has been notoriously slow, shouldn’t hold out any longer.

Paying even a bit of attention to the state prescription registry could save lives.

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