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McCaskill, St. Louis County Council zero in on prescription-drug addiction

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., criticized President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday for his criticism of U.S. intelligence experts.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is renewing her call for Missouri legislators to pass a bill monitoring the sales of prescription drugs. Missouri is the only state that has no such database in place.

McCaskill, a Democrat, contends that failure to pass such a law has contributed to Missouri’s epidemic of people abusing opioid prescription drugs and heroin. She blamed Missouri’s lack of monitoring on “a few legislators who believe this system would violate people’s privacy.”

“This does not invade people’s privacy, this saves people’s lives,” the senator said Tuesday. “This helps us catch people who are trafficking in illegal opioid use.”

“The reason 49 states have done this, is the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

County Council set to act

The St. Louis County Council may take the lead in addressing prescription drug abuse, whether or not the state follows suit.

Councilman Sam Page, who’s also a physician, is co-sponsoring legislation to monitor all controlled substances dispensed at county pharmacies. “People are dying. More people die from heroin abuse and overdose from opioids than homicides and motor vehicle accidents,” he said. “This is the number one cause of death in our county. We need to do something about it, and we can’t wait for the state to act.”

Formally introduced at Tuesday's council meeting, the county legislation would set aside $100,000 to establish a database with the county health department. It aims to prevent individuals from filling the same prescription at multiple pharmacies in the county and would notify law enforcement of any violations.

A hearing is slated for Thursday afternoon. Page expects the measure to win swift passage within a few weeks.

County Executive Steve Stenger supports the bill and said at a news conference that his family has been directly affected by the issue. “I lost my nephew in 2014 to a heroin overdose so it is a situation where, quite literally, there are very little degrees of separation where we have people affected by this issue.”

Speaking to reporters after Tuesday's council meeting, Stenger contended the county legislation would help -- even if the state legislature opts against setting up a statewide database.

Need for treatment outstrips area services

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription pills were the gateway drug for four out of every five heroin users. Stenger’s office says roughly 2,700 area residents have died in the past seven years, from heroin or opiate overdoses.

McCaskill’s comments came right before she held a roundtable discussion Tuesday with area health-care professionals and educators who are grappling with the problem. The gathering was held at the St. Louis office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, which the senator noted ran “a powerful anti-heroin ad” during the Superbowl.

But McCaskill also singled out another ad, run by a pharmaceutical company to promote a drug to combat the constipation that can be caused by opiates. She said she was appalled.

“We are drunk on pain medication in this country,” McCaskill said. “Prescription drug abuse and heroin use are not just drug problems in Missouri and across the country; they’re a serious public-health issue with far-reaching effects that we’ve got to do a better job combating. “

At the roundtable, the senator heard numerous accounts of the region’s inadequate supply of beds for addicts seeking treatment, and the need for more federal and state aid and involvement.

"That’s why today’s discussion was so critical," McCaskill said, noting that the forum gave her "the opportunity to hear directly from law enforcement, providers and survivors on what’s working best, and where are the biggest gaps — insight that I can bring back to Washington to better advocate for the policies that will make a real difference.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.