State lawmakers got their first glimpse at Gov. Jim Justice’s legislation to combat the opioid epidemic in West Virginia Tuesday, giving the bill high marks but cautioning that it could penalize honest doctors.
The bill, which aims to reduce the number of pain pills prescribed, would allow medical licensing boards to more quickly suspend doctors if their prescriptions appear “abnormal or unusual.” The state Board of Pharmacy would flag the suspect prescriptions.
“We have to be careful that we don’t cast too wide a net,” said Matt Walker, who represents primary care doctors.
The Senate Health Committee reviewed the governor’s bill (Senate Bill 273) Tuesday, but lawmakers took no action.
The legislation — called the Opioid Reduction Act — would limit initial prescriptions from doctors to a seven-day supply for short-term pain. Hospital emergency room patients would be restricted to a three-day supply.
“Some doctors say this won’t affect them at all, while others say they will no longer prescribe opioids,” Walker said.
The Health committee has proposed changes to the governor’s bill, such as removing a requirement that doctors must refer patients to a pain clinic after writing three prescriptions for painkillers. West Virginia only has a handful of pain clinics, following a crackdown on rogue clinics that overprescribed opioids.
The committee is reviewing an amended bill that would give doctors the option to refer patients to pain specialists or pain clinics. The referral wouldn’t be mandatory.
The proposed pain-pill prescription limit would not apply to cancer and hospice patients. Existing patients receiving pain medication also would not be affected by the new restrictions.
“This would only apply to patients Jan. 1  forward,” said Jeff Johnson, the Health committee lawyer.
If the bill passes, West Virginia would join about two dozen states that have set limits on opioid prescriptions for acute pain, such as caused by a tooth extraction or ankle sprain.
Last year, Kentucky lawmakers passed a law that restricts prescription painkillers to a three-day supply. Pennsylvania has a five-day limit. Other states have directed medical licensing boards to develop tighter rules for opioid prescribing.
The restrictions aim to stop creating new addicts and keep extra pills from entering the illegal drug market.
“This bill is more aimed at reducing further exposures by more naive individuals and reduce burdens on future generations,” said Dr. Brad Henry, president of the West Virginia State Medical Association, which represents doctors.
West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.
“We are seeing a reduction in prescriptions overall, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health commissioner. “This bill goes a long way in addressing the supply issue.”