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Prescription drug fraud increase seen

Nicole Formosa
Vail, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” In the past year, Summit County Drug Task Force agents say they have seen a huge increase in the number of prescription drug fraud cases involving doctor shoppers ” the name for people who visit numerous physicians in order to feed a controlled-substance addiction.

Last year, they investigated 12 to 15 such cases ” about 40 percent of their overall caseload ” and have already surpassed those numbers this year.

“We’ve got tons of them,” said one agent, who couldn’t be identified because he works undercover.

Also, for the first time in many years, they worked two investigations recently where local care providers, nurses in this case, were diverting medications for their own use.

The jump in local cases is part of the reason the Summit County Drug Task Force held a training last week to educate doctors, pharmacists and dentists on prescription drug fraud and talk about how it can be prevented.

Summit County Undersheriff Derek Woodman, who heads up the Drug Task Force, said the rise in cases isn’t merely a product of more people reporting doctor shoppers.

The problem is actually getting worse, he said.

“As more pharmacies open up, it just avails the opportunity more and more,” Woodman said.

The increase in Summit County reflects not only a statewide, but a nationwide trend.

Between 1992 and 2003, the number of people abusing controlled prescription drugs soared by 94 percent, and in 2005, 15.2 million people nationwide admitted to prescription drug abuse, said Barbara Ezyk, the substance abuse education director for Peer Assistance Services, who works closely with the Colorado Prescription Drug Task Force.

“We’re a society of pill-popping people,” Ezyk said, adding that it’s nearly impossible to read a magazine or watch TV without advertisements telling people to ask their doctor for a certain medication to fix an ailment.

Hydrocodone, or Vicodin, is the most commonly abused controlled substance in the U.S., according to Dan McCormick of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control in Denver.

“If you look at high school kids, marijuana is their No. 1 drug of choice. No. 2 is Vicodin,” McCormick said.

The reasons why prescription drug abuse is on the rise are many. For example, purity ” you know what you’re getting every time ” ease of access, especially through the Internet, and a low risk for violence involved in obtaining the drugs, McCormick said.

Locally, the cases drug agents see are almost never people looking to sell prescriptions to pad their pocketbook. Instead it’s people who’ve become addicted, usually to pain medications.

In one year, they investigated a local woman three separate times for doctor shopping.

“She was really honest with me. She’s like, ‘I used to be addicted to heroin. I got off it. I was clean. Then I got in a car accident and I started taking OxyContin, now I’m hooked again,'” the agent said.

The woman is now in a treatment program, which is the typical fate for first- or second-time offenders.

To help combat the growing problem, a new statewide electronic prescription drug monitoring program is expected to go online in August in which pharmacies can input information on who they dispense controlled substances to. Then other pharmacists and prescribers will have access to the information, allowing them to see what medications a patient is already on, potentially deterring fraud.

One problem, though, is that the database is only updated twice a month, which means doctors can’t rely on real-time information to see if a patient is doctor shopping.


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