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New Law on Prescribing Pain Meds

Last month, a new law went into effect regarding prescription pain medications – at least partly in effect. The full law won’t start up until January of 2012.

The law says that medical staff – including nurses and physical therapists – have to make referrals to pain specialists for patients who require a high level of prescription pain medications. In January the law also applies to doctors and physician’s assistants.

The purpose of the law is to circumvent what has become a growing problem in our state. Washington has a rising level of prescription pain medications (oxycontin, vicodin and other narcotics) that are making their way into the illegal market where addicts can get them. When a regular physician keeps writing more and more prescriptions, patients are more likely to become addicted themselves or to sell extra drugs for cash.

By making a referral mandatory, it funnels patients who need heavy narcotics to those specialists most trained at handling such cases. Typically, pain specialists will “tune” medications and offer other solutions for chronic pain, including many treatments that don’t use drugs at all. Notably, patients that come in with a history of addiction to narcotics have to sign a treatment agreement that includes monitoring through frequent drug tests. This helps prevent addiction and can detect when patients are getting narcotics above what is being prescribed and tracked.

Critics of the law say there aren’t enough pain specialists in Washington State available to handle the new demand. However, doctors are free to take further training to pick up the expertise and with a patient base mandated by law, it is expected that many will do so.


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