To crack down on what he says is a citywide epidemic of prescription drug abuse, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a sharp restriction on the availability of pain-killing medications in public hospital emergency rooms.
The city's new policy prevents most public hospital patients from obtaining more than a 3-day supply of narcotic painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet. The new policy also bans outright the prescription of long-acting painkillers, such as OxyContin. Additionally, Fentanyl patches and methadone will also no longer be dispensed at public emergency rooms. Patient prescriptions that have been lost, stolen, or destroyed will no longer be refilled.
According to Bloomberg, more than a quarter of a million New Yorkers over age 12 are abusing prescription painkillers, resulting in an increase in hospital admissions for overdoses and deaths.
"Abuse of prescription painkillers in our city has increased alarmingly," Bloomberg said at a Thursday press conference where he compared doctors who write false prescriptions to "holdups at neighborhood pharmacies."
Though the announcement was met overall with praise, some critics fear the new policy will have a negative impact on poor and uninsured patients who often use emergency rooms, particularly in public hospitals, as their primary source of medical care.
"Here is my problem with legislative medicine. It prevents me from being a professional and using my judgment," Dr. Alex Rosenau, president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians, told the New York Times
The new guidelines would not apply to patients who require such prescriptions for cancer pain or palliative care according to city health officials, adding that the restrictions would not affect hospital prescriptions outside the emergency room.
"There will be no chance that the patients who need pain relief will not get pain relief," said Dr. Ross Wilson, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs the city's public hospitals.
According to NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas A. Farley, similar policies have been introduced at hospitals in Washington State and Utah. During the news conference, Farley referred to powerful painkillers which have been found to be highly-addictive as "heroin in pill form."
More than 170 accidental overdose deaths reported in the city in 2010 were tied to painkillers, according to Dr. Farley.
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