When Dave Baker of Willmar lost his 25-year-old son Dan to a drug overdose in March 2011, the grieving father felt powerless to combat the overuse of prescription painkillers that triggered his son’s addiction.
Five years later, state Rep. Dave Baker is no longer powerless. The freshman Republican is the chief House sponsor of a bill he hopes will lead to smarter decisions by prescribers of opioid medicines. It requires them to maintain an account with the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, an online registry.
The bill is a modest step, and offers no sure fix for the epidemic of drug overdose deaths that is sweeping Minnesota and the nation. If sure fixes were available, Minnesota likely would not have lost 572 citizens to drug overdoses last year — twice as many as 10 years ago.
But along with a bill allowing pharmacists to take back unused prescription drugs signed into law Thursday by Gov. Mark Dayton and a flurry of opioid-related activity in Washington, Baker’s bill is evidence that elected officials are willing and able to do more than wring their hands about the spike in opioid-related deaths. We hope their exertions are not a fickle phenomenon, in vogue this spring in the wake of the death of rock star Prince and prone to disappearing as public fascination at his passing fades.
At its core, opioid addiction is a public health problem. That means it’s susceptible to melioration via public policy changes — provided policymakers make a sustained effort commensurate with a menace that last year killed more Americans than motor vehicle accidents. Lawmakers are obliged to measure the results of their actions and adjust them as needed to maximize their effectiveness in reducing opioid-related deaths.
Baker’s bill, which awaits final legislative action, represents a good-faith stab at reducing the overprescribing of addictive painkilling drugs. It stops short of requiring prescribing physicians and dentists to check the online registry before issuing a new prescription. But it ensures that those who prescribe such drugs are able to use the registry.
If, as expected, the bill becomes law, its results bear watching. It could have the unintended consequence of turning addicts away from doctors and toward the black market, where heroin is readily available. But with fewer than 1 in 4 authorized drug prescribers enrolled in the Prescription Monitoring Program, its potential to reduce the overprescribing of dangerous drugs has not been fully realized.
Baker’s bill should give the program a better chance to prove its worth. And the state lawmakers who enact it should gauge its success not by the number of painkiller prescriptions issued to Minnesotans, but by the number of overdose deaths it prevents.