NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg

In response to a citywide and national epidemic of prescription drug abuse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has instituted a policy in New York City that will restrict the use of prescription painkillers in the city’s public hospitals. The policy, which will affect the distribution of prescription drugs from hospital emergency rooms, could set a model for hospitals across the nation.

Under Bloomberg’s new policy, emergency room patients will only be given three days worth of narcotic drugs like Percocet and Vicodin. Oxycontin, which has been shown to be one of the most addictive painkillers, will not be distributed at all from 11 public emergency rooms. This is also true of methadone and Fentanyl patches. Emergency rooms also will not fill painkiller prescriptions that are reported to have been stolen, lost or destroyed.

One of the goals of the new policy is to reduce the amount of drugs that end up in medicine cabinets and diverted for sale on the street. When he announced the new policy, Mayor Bloomberg said that a quarter million teenage and adult New Yorkers are abusing prescription painkillers. Two million prescriptions for highly addictive opioid painkillers are written in New York City each year. According to New York health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, an estimated 40,000 city residents are in need of treatment for painkiller dependency. The situation has led to an increase in drug overdoses and deaths, robberies of neighborhood pharmacies and a rise in prescription fraud.

The new policy is not without its critics. Dr. Alex Rosenau, president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians, stated that he would prefer to leave decisions about prescriptions in the hands of physicians. However, emergency room physicians had not developed their own policy to limit the abuse of prescription painkillers. Other critics have pointed out that emergency rooms are often the primary source of medical care for the poor and uninsured. The policy could deprive these people of access to medication for legitimate pain.

NYC health officials say that the new policy will not apply to patients who are being treated for cancer, nor will it limit drugs being dispensed to patients who have been admitted to the hospital. Similar policies have been enacted in Utah and Washington State. The new policy does not restrict painkiller prescriptions in about 50 private emergency rooms in New York City, but many of these hospitals say they will voluntarily adopt the new regulations.