New York City’s Attempt to Crackdown on Prescription Drug Abuse Through the Emergency Room
On January 10, 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the City’s eleven public hospitals will comply with voluntary emergency room guidelines aimed at stemming the abuse of prescription opioid painkillers.
The New York City Emergency Department Discharge Opioid Prescribing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) highlight that the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (“EMTALA”) “does not require the use of opioid analgesics to treat pain.” Given their risks, “[o]pioid analgesics should not be considered as the primary approach to pain management in discharge planning for patients.”
According to the Guidelines, only when deemed professionally appropriate to prescribe these drugs, emergency department (“ED”) prescribers should prescribe no more than a short course of short-acting opioid analgesics, such as hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), immediate-release oxycodone (e.g., Percocet), and hydromorphone (e.g., Dilaudid), for acute pain. The Guidelines define “short course” as no more than three days’ worth of medication for most patients.
ED providers should altogether avoid prescribing long-acting or extended release opioid analgesics, like OxyContin, Methadone, and Duragesic patches, however, because they “are not indicated in the management of acute or intermittent pain.”
The Guidelines further recommend that EDs as a matter of policy refuse to replace prescriptions for opioid analgesics that are claimed to be lost, stolen, or destroyed. In rare instances, it may be reasonable to dispense a single dose of the medication from the ED, but only where the ED physician “confirmed the need directly with the patient’s physician.”
An article in the New York Times reports some critics’ concerns that the Guidelines will prevent doctors from providing care to poor and uninsured patients who may use EDs as their primary source of medical care. In addition, Dr. Alex Rosenau, president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians, is quoted as criticizing the Guidelines for preventing him from being a professional and using his judgment.
In fairness to the Bloomberg Administration, the Guidelines expressly note that they are not intended to apply to “patients in palliative care programs or with cancer pain.” They further recognize that they “do not replace clinical judgment in the appropriate care of patients nor are they intended to provide guidance on the management of patients while they are in the ED.”
This suggests doctors retain the ability to exercise their professional judgment to deviate from the Guidelines in appropriate cases. Indeed, Dr. Rosenau apparently does not speak for the New York State Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which endorses the Guidelines, according to Bloomberg’s press release.
But implicit in the Guidelines is the assumption that appropriate prescribers are available to provide palliative care or substance abuse treatment to patients with needs that demand more than the Guidelines permit.
The number of uninsured Americans remains significant, even with the Affordable Care Act’s reforms. Many individuals with health insurance, moreover, have difficulty finding specialists who participate in their plans or may have to wait weeks or months for an available appointment. How are ED prescribers supposed to know which patients will be able to secure a timely follow-up appointment and which ones require ED discretion?
Another potential concern with the Guidelines is how they may impact ED use by patients seeking opioid prescriptions.
It is possible that the Guidelines will drive up demand for painkillers from ED services at private emergency rooms in New York City and public or private emergency rooms in areas bordering New York City that are not bound by the Guidelines. As the New York Times article reports, although the City cannot impose the Guidelines on its 50 or so private hospitals, some already have agreed to adopt them, including NYU Langhone Medical Center and Maimonides Medical Center. If they don’t, it’s reasonable to predict demand for pain medications may spike at these facilities, which effect would not address the underlying problem but instead would just shift its locus.
ED use could even increase at hospitals electing to comply with the Guidelines. A patient who previously obtained a ten-day dosage of pain medication from a single ED visit, for example, might more than triple her ED use because now she may only obtain a three-day dosage in each visit. This risks exacerbating the ED high utilizer problem that so many current reforms aim to reduce.
There also seem to be holes in New York’s prescription monitoring program that limit its value as a tool to help ED physicians decide how to exercise their discretion.
For one, although the Guidelines recognize that prescribers can “access the New York State Controlled Substance Information (CSI) on Dispensed Prescriptions Program for information on patients’ controlled substance prescription history,” the Guidelines do not require ED prescribers to do so.
Even if ED physicians access the database, current law only requires pharmacists to update the registry every two weeks. While this may identify historical patterns of abuse, the reporting delay severely hampers the ability of physicians to timely identify concurrent or more recent doctor shopping.
Effective August 27, 2013, New York’s database arguably should become more valuable as a tool for identifying drug seeking behavior. Pursuant to Public Health Law Section 3343-a, prescribers in New York will have to check the database before prescribing controlled substances, and pharmacists will have to update the database in real time.
But importantly, subparagraph (2)(a)(v) of this law exempts ED prescribers from the requirement to check the database prior to prescribing controlled substances as long as the prescription does not exceed a five day supply, which the Guidelines generally prohibit. New York’s registry also will not contain information about prescribing in other states, such as bordering New Jersey and Connecticut.
Although not a substantive criticism of the Guidelines, it also is interesting to note the potential tension between this initiative and news that New York City’s public hospitals are negotiating to experiment with performance pay. As a recent article in Forbes chronicled, there is evidence that doctors overprescribe medications, including powerful narcotics, to help secure higher patient satisfaction scores and, in turn, greater compensation. If this performance plan goes through, it will be worth watching how ED doctors in New York City public hospitals balance the need to comply with the Guidelines with their desire to maximize their compensation.
Mayor Bloomberg rather cavalierly dismissed critics’ concerns about the Guidelines in his weekly radio show, reportedly responding, “[S]o you didn’t get enough painkillers and you did have to suffer a little bit. The other side of the coin is people are dying and there’s nothing perfect …. There’s nothing that you can possibly do where somebody isn’t going to suffer, and it’s always the same group [claiming], ‘Everybody is heartless.’ Come on, this is a very big problem.”
Certainly, prescription drug abuse is a very big problem. But that does not mean the Guidelines are the best we can do. We must continue to evaluate and revise our reform efforts.
Bloomberg’s announcement also touted the creation of NYC RxStat, which is a joint effort of the Mayor’s Task Force on Prescription Painkiller Abuse and the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Program to “leverage relevant public health and public safety data in support of monitoring and combating the problem of prescription painkiller abuse.”
Undoubtedly it is critical to bring together city, state, and federal agencies to address this cross-border problem by sharing data, assessing trends, and evaluating strategies to reduce prescription drug abuse. I hope part of its charge will be evaluating the Guidelines — and similar efforts in places like Seattle, Ohio, and Milwaukee — to address potential flaws and to make more effective use of prescription monitoring programs without denying appropriate care to patients in need.
 Although the Mayor’s press release states that the guidelines are included in the January 2013 Interim Report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Prescription Painkiller Abuse, this report references distinct, though related, evidence-based clinical guidelines for prescribing prescription painkillers that the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene distributed to New York City providers in December 2011.