DENVER — Hayes Veeneman’s story of losing his oldest son to a prescription drug overdose is all the more heart-wrenching because it’s a story he shares with thousands of other Colorado families.
Veeneman, who came from Grand County to tell his story to lawmakers at the Capitol Thursday, is still hoping to prevent future deaths from pain pill overdoses — and it’s not just a community-minded awareness campaign; his other son, too, is fighting an addiction to prescription drugs.
“Both of my sons are so typical of how this addiction starts: an illness or injury, pain medication and then addiction,” Veeneman said.
Colorado’s rate of prescription drug abuse is the second highest in the country at nearly seven percent — only Oregon’s rate is higher — having quadrupled in the last decade as doctors moved to treat chronic pain directly rather than dismiss it as a symptom.
“More people actually die from prescription drug overdose than from traffic accidents,” said state Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, the sponsor of House Bill 1283, which aims to modernize Colorado’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP).
The legislation, part of a larger effort stemming from a task force led in part by Gov. John Hickenlooper through the National Governors Association, aims to broaden the use of the state’s electronic drug monitoring database so that more doctors and pharmacists can access it.
In addition, the bill will offer practitioners new information, alerting them when certain behaviors by patients seeking prescription drugs trigger red flags.
“People can often go to different providers or they’ll show up in an emergency room and talk about how much pain they’re having,” McCann said. “These changes will allow pharmacists of that kind of suspicious behavior before they write the prescription.”
Robert Valuck, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Outcomes Research at the University of Colorado Anshutz Medical Campus, told lawmakers Thursday that the pain pills, first described to treat pain, are a “slippery slope” that often lead to higher doses and even more dangerous drugs like heroin.
“We have a very serious problem here in Colorado and the cost to our citizens is very high both in terms of lives and dollars,” Valuck said. “And we must address it with the same urgency as we have other epidemics like drunk driving.”
Veeneman believes the focus on prescription drug abuse and the improved PDMP will save lives.
“The PDMP is about information and the information it provides does save lives,” he told lawmakers. “I can only think what might have been, and might [my son] still be alive, if the enhancements in this bill had been in place at the time of his death.
“If a prescriber does not have the critical information that is readily available, potential catastrophic ends can and do occur.”
After a hearing that lasted more than two hours, the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee approved McCann’s bill on a 7-2 bipartisan vote.
The legislation is part of a larger effort to curb prescription drug abuse that will focus on awareness, education and treatment.