NEW YORK CITY — Mayor Michael Bloomberg is launching a public health crusade against prescription painkillers, banning all city-run hospital emergency departments from prescribing more than three days worth of the drugs.
Under the guidelines, hospitals will also be barred from prescribing long-acting opioids and refilling lost, stolen or destroyed prescriptions, in an effort to reduce the number of pills in circulation and cut down on abuse.
“Make no mistake, these are dangerous drugs,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who announced the new crackdown with the mayor at a press conference at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.
Farley said approximately 40,000 New Yorkers are currently addicted to painkillers and are in need of drug treatment.
“Think of them as heroin in pill form," he said.
Abuse of prescription painkillers — such as OxyContin, Roxicodon, Vicodin and methadon — has increased "alarmingly" in recent years, said the mayor, who added that more than a quarter million New Yorkers over the age of 12 report having abused painkillers prescribed to them or someone else.
Painkiller-related emergency department visits have also nearly tripled between 2004 and 2010, from 55 visits for every 100,000 people to 143, officials said.
The crackdown is the latest controversial public heath push by Bloomberg, who in recent years has also banned restaurants from serving large, sugary sodas, forced hospitals to sell healthy foods and banned smoking in bars and restaurants.
While the city does not have oversight over the private healthcare system, Bloomberg urged other hospitals to adopt the guidelines voluntarily.
The regulations will not apply to private health clinics, doctors, or non-emergency sections of Health and Hospitals Corporation facilities.
Ross Wilson, chief medical officer of HCC, whose emergency departments prescribe about 800,000 doses each year, dismissed concerns the effort might result in some not receiving drugs they need.
He said patients who need ongoing pain relief will be referred to other doctors who can write longer-term prescriptions.
"There will be no chance that patients who need pain relief will not get pain relief," he said. "If they need longer care, they will be referred somewhere else."
To help with the crackdown, officials also announced the creation of NYC RxStat, a centralized database that will track data on drug overdoses, prescriptions and emergency room visits.
“RXStat will become the CompStat of the prescription drug epidemic," said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan, referring to the NYPD's crime database.
She noted the demand for the drugs has also led to criminal behavior, such as holdups at neighborhood pharmacies.
The prescription drug problem is most severe on Staten Island, according to Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who said that someone dies from overdosing on prescription drugs in the borough every 13 days.
"There’s this misnomer that these things are safe," he said, noting that people with kids often lock up guns or liquor cabinets, but leave potentially dangerous pills out in the open.