By Rebecca Henely
Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited Elmhurst Hospital Center last week to unveil what is expected to be the first step in a citywide campaign to combat prescription painkiller abuse.
“This is a very serious problem,” Bloomberg said. “It is growing by leaps and bounds. It is very dangerous.”
As the result of a task force started by Bloomberg at the end of 2011, the city has released new, voluntary guidelines for emergency departments in city hospitals on prescribing opioid painkillers, which include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl patches and methadone.
Under the new guidelines, emergency department doctors will not be able to prescribe long-acting opioid painkillers, which are more often used for those with chronic conditions; will only be allowed to give prescriptions for three days or less; and will not refill any prescriptions that have been lost, stolen or destroyed.
“We think they make a lot of sense,” said Dr. Ross Wilson, senior vice president and chief medical officer for the city Health and Hospitals Corp.
While the city cannot force hospitals to adopt the guidelines, all city-run hospitals — including Elmhurst Hospital Center, at 79-01 Broadway, and Queens Hospital Center, at 82-70 164th St. in Jamaica Hills — have voluntarily adopted them. City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said he hopes the private hospitals will end up adopting the guidelines as well.
Farley said in terms of addictive power, opioid painkillers are “heroin in pill form.”
“There’s a role for these drugs in medicine, but make no mistake these are very dangerous drugs,” he said.
Bloomberg also said the task force’s recommendations led to the establishment of NYC ExStat, a team of representatives from various city, state and federal agencies who will work together to collect data on prescription painkiller abuse. The task force hopes to roll out more initiatives in the future.
The mayor said this became a concern because emergency department visits tied to painkillers grew by 143 percent from 2004-10. Of unintentional drug overdose deaths, prescription painkillers were involved in 32 percent. Bloomberg said some addicts have also held up drugstores for drugs, making the issue one of public safety.
“This epidemic has great potential for violence,” said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan.
In response to questions over whether the new guidelines could prevent patients who genuinely need painkillers from getting them, Bloomberg said right now the problem is too many people are receiving painkillers, not too few.
“There will be no chance that patients who need painkillers will not get painkillers,” Wilson said.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.