The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 3, 2012

Meth issue not over? ... Tracking alternative under fire; senator’s proposal to require prescriptions may be renewed

CHARLESTON — Just when you thought the controversy over a failed attempt to put 15 cold and allergy medicines on a “prescription only” status had ended, the issue has been revived along the Potomac River, and one state senator feels new life could be breathed into his proposal to combat meth labs.

All 15 of the common household medications contain pseudoephedrine, a critical element in the production of methamphetamine.

Rather than make them available only via a doctor’s prescription, the Legislature this year preferred to track sales via the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx.

Now, however, that method has come under attack in Congress through a bi-partisan attempt to get Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether NPLEx has been abused. Specifically, is the data not going to law enforcement agencies on a timely basis but instead is winding up in the hands of pharmaceuticals to help with sales.

Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, brought to fellow lawmakers’ attention in last week’s interims the request by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., a physician.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the state,” Foster said, after passing out copies of the letter Wyden and Roe sent to Holder.

“But there’s the potential that there will be an investigation by the Department of Justice related to their concerns.”

In their letter, the lawmakers advised Holder that, based on information they recently acquired, they had “new concerns about the legality, integrity and effectiveness of this tracking system, and believe it may warrant greater federal scrutiny at this time.”

Wyden and Roe said their concerns were couched in talks with state and local law enforcement who suggested that NPLEx might not be in compliance with federal law.

The two told Holder that there is concern that the use of the electronic system could be actually impeding law enforcement agencies in their attempts to crack down on illegal meth manufacturing.

Another serious concern voiced in their letter was that data collected in point-of-sale purchases could be used for marketing and sales purposes.

“Beyond mere compliance with the law, the involvement of any private companies or associations in the NPLEx funding equation also raises fundamental questions about the potential conflict of interest in having financially interested parties supply a tracking system that, if used for its stated purpose, could lead to fewer sales of pseudoephedrine-containing products,” the two said.

Foster, a Charleston surgeon, led a failed attempt the past two sessions to bar the use of the 15 medications with pseudoephedrine without a physician’s prescription. His measure gained easy approval last year in the House of Delegates but failed on a rare tie vote in the Senate.

This past session, the Legislature again turned its back on Foster’s proposal, instead enacting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s omnibus bill aimed at reversing rampant drug misuse in West Virginia. And that meant the use of the NPLEx system.

“It’s clearly been ineffective,” Foster said.

“It’s never been known to reduce meth labs anywhere. They’ve actually gone up. The question is, whether they’re using the information from it to market into pre-sales. They’re not supposed to send the information to anybody but law enforcement. A lot of what law enforcement are complaining about is, that they’re not getting the information as they were supposed to, either the amount, or in a timely fashion.”

Wyden and Roe are asking Holder to look into whether the NPLEx vendor, Appriss Inc., failed to comply with the access feature of the tracking system and if data collected in the tracking system went to non-law enforcement entities.

Foster provided the letter to Senate Health Chairman Ron Stollings, D-Boone, and his counterpart in the House, Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne.

“The administration was not aware of this until this morning, either, which is interesting,” Foster said on the final day of November interims.

“I don’t know where this will lead,” the senator said.

“But there are certainly red flags that a lot of the information is going back to the industry to use it for marketing purposes for the products.”

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