Hydrocodone, also known as Vicodin, is a controlled substance for which new state legislation prohibits refills. Associated Press Photo
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - A state law to crack down on prescription drug abuse took effect last month, but patients with a legitimate need for painkillers are finding they are another casualty in the fight to end the growing epidemic.
The legislation reclassified some controlled substances to place limits on how much can be prescribed at once and eliminating refills.
That information led a 70-year-old Livingston resident to find a new physician because traveling to her regular doctor on the South Shore once a month for a written script proved too difficult.
"I'm somewhat disabled, have problems with my back, typical senior issues," said the woman, who has been taking painkillers for eight years for degenerative disc disease and arthritis.
"My issue is my physician is clear across Staten Island, and for me to get a written prescription every month is a hardship. I changed physicians. I just decided I can't deal with going to the other side of the Island."
Among the first changes to take effect in the new legislation -- which was signed into law last summer by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and backed by borough lawmakers -- makes hydrocodone a Schedule II controlled substance, which prohibits refills.
Tramadol, another painkiller, has now made a controlled substance, though refills are permitted.
Still, the new regulations should not prevent patients who rely on the medications from filling them on time, according to Michael Coyne, vice president and director of pharmacy services at Staten Island University Hospital.
Doctors can write a three-month, non-refillable supply of controlled substances, including hydrocodone, using certain codes for conditions considered "chronic" or "incurable."
"They're not refillable, but at least [patients] don't have to go to the doctor every month," Coyne said. "So there is some relief in the law."
Pharmacist Robert Annicharico has been involved in efforts to put an end to prescription drug abuse, but he also sees the impact it has on his long-standing customers when they learn their pain prescriptions can no longer be refilled.
"There's a tremendous amount of patients who really need pain meds just to function daily," said Annicharico, the owner of Delco Drugs in Eltingville, who gives his customers handouts explaining the new rules.
"Without their medicine, a lot of these patients will be in a lot of pain."
Annicharico expects things to ease come August when the state moves from paper scripts to a system mandating electronic prescribing -- or e-prescribing -- for all controlled substances.
At the same time, doctors will be required to check a real-time registry maintained by the state Department of Health before they prescribe certain drugs as a way to prevent doctor-shopping. Pharmacists also will have access to the registry and will be required to report each dispensation of one of the specified drugs.
"I had a lady crying to me the other day, 'Please help me, what am I going to do?" Annicharico said. "It really makes it difficult for the pharmacist to say 'no' to someone who is crying to them.
"That said, we needed to do something. I'll keep going back to that -- something needed to be done. I think it's just going to take some time getting used to."