By Wendy Holdren
The West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association is urging federal lawmakers to institute a policy that would track cash transactions for controlled substances, which they say would eliminate the “cash loophole” for illegal prescription drug sales.
Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner said 93 percent of prescription drug transactions in the country go through a national data system that identifies the prescriber, the doctor and the medication.
“However, data from the 7 percent of prescriptions paid for with cash are never submitted to this national system, which creates a ‘cash loophole’ that allows these transactions to avoid detection.”
Pharmacies and other retailers use this system to ensure third-party payment for prescriptions when customers use private insurance like a health plan or public insurance like Medicare or Medicaid.
Cash transactions in which customers pay 100 percent of the prescription costs out-of-pocket, known as self-pay, are not routed through the nationwide system.
The Sheriffs’ Association believes the system could be tailored to the needs of law enforcement to provide real-time trend data about where cash transactions occur, how they are filled and how they are prescribed.
Because the majority of West Virginia’s population lives within 30 minutes of the state border, the association believes the system could help block illegal cross-boarder doctor shopping.
“A recent report prepared by Brandeis University for the Pew Charitable Trusts found that cash transactions can be an indicator of questionable activity, such as doctor shopping,” Greenbrier County Sheriff Jim Childers said. “The study found that is especially true for individuals who have health insurance and that pill mills usually accept only cash payments. The Drug Enforcement Agency views cash transactions as giant red flags that signal increased likelihood of illegal behavior.”
Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford shared West Virginia statistics to show the need to fight prescription drug abuse. He said between 2001 and 2008, drug deaths quadrupled statewide and drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for West Virginians under age 45. Pharmacies fill more prescriptions per capita in West Virginia than in any other state and prescription painkillers cause more overdoses here than any other state.
Rutherford said over 152,000 West Virginians have prescription drug problems.
“These illegal prescription drugs are a significant problem not only for law enforcement but also for others, because they are destroying communities and families,” said Rudi Raynes-Kidder, executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association.
Raynes-Kidder said the association will reach out to the state’s congressional delegation in coming weeks.
“This is a national problem,” she said. “So for a data-tracking system to be accurate, it must be national.”