June 12, 2017 In The News

New Jersey, Pennsylvania congressmen tout sharing information to combat opioid epidemic

CAMDEN — Dr. Jim Baird was tired of signing death certificates for an increasing number of overdose victims that come into his emergency room at Kennedy University Hospital in Washington, Camden County.

So when U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross was visiting the hospital last month, Baird took the opportunity to speak to the congressman about what he perceived to be a major blind spot in New Jersey’s Prescription Monitoring Program, a data sharing system that allows doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement officers to track information on prescription drug sales, patients and prescribing physicians.

While New Jersey shared data with New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and even Minnesota, Baird told Norcross he and other doctors had no access to information about patients obtaining drugs in Pennsylvania. Without it, he couldn’t know if a patient complaining of severe pain might already have been prescribed an opioid painkiller from another doctor across the Delaware River.

The lack of data access troubled the second-term Democratic congressman and prompted him to team with Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Pennsylvania, in writing a letter to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, urging the two leaders to expedite efforts to begin sharing prescription drug information.

Within a week, an agreement was forged to allow the two states to share data from their own respective monitoring programs. It took effect last week.

The collaboration was celebrated Monday morning during a news conference featuring Norcross, Meehan and Baird at Cooper Poynt Waterfront Park. Located on the banks of the Delaware River and within a stone’s throw of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, lawmakers said the setting was appropriate given that the bridge is a pathway for some addicts to travel from state to state to obtain prescription opioids.

“That bridge has been the enabler for those who want to get prescription opioids. All they had to do was pay the toll. Well, that’s going to change,” Norcross said.

“This is a scourge that knows no boundaries,” said Meehan, a former federal prosecutor. “State borders mean nothing to those who are addicted.”

Both congressmen credited Christie and Wolf for their fast response, saying it would save lives by allowing physicians to better identify patients that may be abusing the drugs they prescribe and take steps to get them treatment.

“This is an opportunity for docs to use this information. It allows doctors to check if there’s suspicion of potential abuse,” Meehan said. “We think it will make a huge difference.”

Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester also participated in the letter, which was sent to Delaware Gov. John Carney. While the neighboring state already shares prescription data with New Jersey, it does not share data with Pennsylvania.

Meehan and Norcross said they will press for that to change soon and continue to collaborate on ways to combat the addiction crisis.

“The fact of the matter is we’re losing the war right now,” Norcross said. “Approximately 60,000 people died over overdoses last year. Thousands go to emergency wards. … However, working together, we can start to address it.”

Christie, who is chairman of a commission created by President Donald Trump to devise a national strategy for tackling opioid and heroin addiction, said last week that he was committed to growing the network of states New Jersey shares drug information with.

In addition to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and West Virginia recently enrolled in the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program.
As of last week, the program contained more than 72.9 million records of drug prescriptions and dispensing information. Since its inception in 2011, more than 8.9 million searches have been performed, officials said.

“We will keep growing the (monitoring program) as bipartisan leaders of more states recognize it as an invaluable solution to protect people from the disease of addiction, and to connect tens of millions of people with immediate treatment, including those who otherwise would have been lost under the radar,” Christie said last week.

On Monday, he also revealed that he’s considering recommending changes to medical privacy laws so parents could be notified if their children are revived with the overdose antidote naloxone. He declined to provide more details, but said a preliminary report from his White House commission is expected soon.

Christie spoke to reporters after an event on the drug crisis at the Morristown Medical Center in Morris County.

Baird said his hospital dispenses naloxone, also known as Narcan, once every 5 hours and 15 minutes. He said more regional cooperation and data sharing are needed to try to address the epidemic.

“I call on anyone listening or who is here today to reach out to each other,” he said. “We need the biggest roundtable discussion in the history of roundtable discussions to combat something like this.”