Last year medical professionals in the state of Mississippi prescribed enough pain killers to give each person in the state approximately 70 dosages of prescription pain medication.
That same year, 37 medical professionals — ranging from doctors to their office managers to physical therapists — were arrested for some type of prescription fraud.
These numbers are according to Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy, whose agency is becoming increasingly concerned about the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic overtaking Mississippi.
“We’ve been trying to sound the alarm for quite some time to make people aware of the prescription pain killer epidemic that we have, and unfortunately we’re going down the path that many other states have gone down,” he said.
And though it’s not common, it does happen that medical professionals knowingly contribute to the problem.
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Just in the last month two medical professionals in the Golden Triangle were arrested on some kind of prescription fraud charge. On May 17, MBN agents arrested Starkville nurse Amanda Jones for obtaining a controlled substance by fraud after she allegedly wrote Adderall prescriptions in the name of a family member and filled them at local pharmacies. And earlier this week, Robin Lowry, a former office manager at a Columbus doctor’s clinic, plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of health care fraud after writing prescriptions for drugs patients didn’t need and filing them with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama.
At the time she wrote those prescriptions, Lowry also worked for an Alabama-based pharmaceutical company that employed family members and employees of doctors and other medical professionals with the authority to write prescriptions, according to federal court documents. She occasionally forged doctor’s signatures on the prescriptions.
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“A lot of what we see is prescription by fraud, which essentially is persons who are unauthorized to write prescriptions writing prescriptions under the name of a particular doctor,” Dowdy said.
Other problems include prescriptions being written without a proper examination or review of a patient’s history as well as theft of pills by medical professionals.
The same thing is a problem in pharmacies, with pharmacists or pharmacy technicians stealing bottles of pain pills and selling them on the streets, said Frank Gammill, executive director of the Mississippi Board of Pharmacy.
“Sometimes the health insurance companies get billed for it,” Gammill said. “…But a tech manipulates the system and the product goes to the street for financial gain. Somebody paid $30 for it, but when it hits the street it’s worth $1,000 or something like that.”
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In Lowndes County, opioids are not as big a deal as ice methamphetamines, said Capt. Archie Williams, commander of the Lowndes-Columbus joint drug task force. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still a problem.
“The prescription pills and such have been a problem for years and years,” Williams said. “… And recently we just had a few cases of heroin possession, so it’s coming on up.”
Heroin is a problem because it accounts for the majority of drug overdose deaths and because people who find themselves addicted to heroin often started out being addicted to prescription pain killers.
It’s extremely easy for someone with a legitimate reason for taking pain medication — such as pain from a surgery or injury — to get addicted to pain medication while taking pills legally prescribed to them, Williams said.
When they’re out, they either go back to their doctor to make up more reasons to get pain pills or just start buying them on the street, he said.
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That addiction is at the core of the problem, Board of Pharmacy Deputy Director Steve Parker said. Drug dealers — sometimes medical professionals and sometimes not — are manipulating those addictions for financial gain.
“In the last year, we had 52,000 overdose deaths in this country, and of those overdose deaths, 33,000 were opioid overdose deaths, or prescription drug (overdose deaths),” Parker said. “It’s almost like having the results of the deaths in a Vietnam War every year. It’s tremendous and we’re seeing a growth in Mississippi.”
The answer, he believes, is education. MBN and the Board of Pharmacy along with several other organizations have begun town hall-style meetings for nurses, other medical professionals and the public about the scope of the opioid epidemic and the dangers of an opioid addiction. Governor Phil Bryant has also set up an Opioid and Heroin Task Force of medical and law enforcement professionals to discuss regulatory measures and other ways to combat what is essentially a disease.
Parker added that there has to be balance — there are many people in need of prescription pain pills who need doctors to help manage their pain.
“I believe we have to have trust in our healthcare professionals,” he said.
“Sometimes we expect to have a pain pill when an Aspirin would do,” Parker said. “And we need to question ourselves first. Is this really necessary? Is this overkill to have pain medications?”
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