Trenton, NJ: N.J. awards contract for prescription drug monitoring system
N.J. awards contract for prescription drug monitoring system
Published: Thursday, April 07, 2011, 7:00 AM
TRENTON — After years of delays, New Jersey has awarded a contract for the state’s long-awaited prescription drug monitoring program, an electronic database that advocates say will aid investigations, curb drug abuse and save lives.
The program requires pharmacies to collect and send data to the state for every prescription for controlled dangerous substances, including anabolic steroids and frequently abused painkillers like methadone and oxycodone.
The database makes it easier to flag unscrupulous physicians and pharmacists or patients who obtain prescriptions from several doctors, a practice known as "doctor shopping."
"This is a significant milestone," said Thomas Calcagni, acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. "We’ve been pushing this thing."
The database, which is confidential and not available to the public, will become an investigative tool for law enforcement officers, state licensing boards and Medicare representatives, to name a few.
The sole bidder for the contract, Optimum Technology of Columbus, Ohio, has entered into a five-year agreement with the state for $775,000, Calcagni said.
Thirty-four states already have programs up and running, according to the National Alliance of Model Drug Laws. New Jersey received a $350,000 grant to start its own program six years ago, and former Gov. Jon Corzine signed enabling legislation in 2008. State officials have acknowledged New Jersey’s program has been slow to get off the ground.
Calls for the state to move swiftly on the program came in December, when a three-part Star-Ledger series exposed widespread abuse of steroids and human growth hormone by hundreds of New Jersey law enforcement officers and firefighters.
The monitoring program is one tool state officials say they plan to use to combat the problem. A committee assembled by Attorney General Paula Dow to examine the issue is studying other remedies.
Optimum representatives estimated the monitoring program will be operational in three to four months. Calcagni declined to comment on the timeline.
"We’ve sent letters to every single pharmacy in the state so that they can prepare themselves," he said.
Preparation is easiest for the large pharmacy chains that already have advanced computer systems, said Harvey Maldow, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Pharmacists Association, a group with 1,200 members. Neighborhood pharmacies with less advanced systems could have a tougher time, he said.
"There are certainly some of our members who do not have capability with the current software to easily provide that information," Maldow said. "Some of the smaller, independent pharmacies do not, and those are the people who are barely hanging on."
In a recent meeting with the Division of Consumer Affairs, Maldow said, the parties discussed an appropriate deadline for pharmacies transmitting data to the state. The division’s initial request was 24 hours, said Maldow, who would prefer a one-week deadline.
"We felt that was unreasonable with the normal workflow," he said. "The issue is having to do it within a certain 24-hour time period. What if the pharmacist who knows how to do that is off? And the relief pharmacist doesn’t know how to do it? Then we get fined."
Sarah Kelsey, an attorney for the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, says it’s typical to see the programs go through "a pretty lengthy process" before actually becoming a tool for investigators.
"Within a state, there are so many subsets of laws and regulations that affect controlled substances," she said. "Figuring out how the program will work within that framework, it takes that time."
Calcagni also has the authority to add additional drugs — including those not classified as controlled dangerous substances — to the monitoring program. In a draft version of the regulations, he included growth hormone, a tightly-regulated and expensive drug legally prescribed for only a handful of rare conditions.
Former Assemblyman Fred Scalera, a critic of the lengthy delay, said it was "great news" a contract had been awarded.
To Scalera, a Democrat who represented Essex County before leaving the Legislature for a job in the private sector six months ago, the monitoring program is literally a life-and-death issue.
At least six Essex County residents died of overdoses tied to a drug ring that obtained hundreds of thousands of oxycodone pills from an Edison pharmacy in 2009. A tracking system, he said, might have flagged the pharmacy’s output of the drug and prevented the deaths.
In September, Scalera questioned state officials on the delay before the Assembly consumer affairs committee.
"Hopefully, this system will save lives and protect people throughout the state," he said.
Staff writer Mark Mueller contributed to this report.