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Missouri a hot spot for 'doctor shopping' for Rx drugs

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CONCORDIA AND ST. JOSEPH, MO (KCTV) -

There isn't much time for Jason Mahurin's life to slow down with three busy boys, a wife, and a lively church to run. He's pastor at New Life Assembly in Concordia, MO.

"Right now we're doing a series entitled ‘Versus; the battles we fight'. So we set up a little boxing ring essentially," said Jason Mahurin standing at the front of his church.

Of his congregation, he says, "We're pretty young and we like to be loud."

In the rare quiet moments, Mahurin's mind runs to his own battles. Nine years ago, he tore up his ankle playing church softball and needed intensive surgery.

"Took everything apart and put me back together," he said.

To deal with the pain, doctors prescribed opioid narcotic pills.

"I was taking them as prescribed in the very beginning and then over a course of time you develop a dependence, and a tolerance to where you know one pill, two pills doesn't work, you begin to take three and then four," Mahurin said.

What started as five milligrams a day of Oxycontin, evolved to 300. Because he still had a job and a family, Mahurin convinced himself that his use was under control.

"Addicts are the people that hold signs on the exit ramps, and they've lost everything and they're scraping change so they can get the next hit and I'm not a junky, I'm just a regular guy who's in pain," he remembered.

Then one Friday, in October 2010, Mahurin had no money to pay for his next week of pills; withdrawal was setting in.

"And I found myself at this storefront staring in," he said. "I had a handgun in my vehicle because of situations I put myself in recently. And so I see a door open to this business and it, that was it."

Mahurin held up a Shawnee dry cleaning business at gunpoint, and would spend the next nine and a half months in jail.

"To tell that story is as crazy to me as it sounds to you," Mahurin said. "You can look at my mug shot and see that person fairly easily."

So how do you go from this man to the one in the mugshot?

It's a question Mahurin's friend, and Saline County Coroner, Willie Harlow says deserves more attention.

"I sign more death certificates from prescription drug overdoses than I do traffic fatalities," Harlow said.

Harlow has seen the number of these overdoses spike in the past five years, and discovered huge stashes of prescription pain drugs in victims' homes.

"We took out literally three trash bags full of prescription pain medication bottles, many of them empty, many of them full," Harlow said. "She (a victim) had been to, I think we counted, nine different doctors, and six different pharmacies."

It's called doctor shopping. As the only state without a tracking system to prevent it, Missouri has become a hot spot for visitors who want to buy medications from multiple physicians. Missouri has no database largely because of Republican State Senator Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, who last year filibustered a bill for a Missouri prescription drug monitoring program.

"This is a very serious infringement on our liberty," Schaaf said.

The proposed database would be state-run. Prescriptions for controlled substances would be entered there, with the names of the patient and prescribing physician. That database would only be accessible to doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement with a subpoena – to determine if a patient is getting medications from multiple providers.

Citing a 2009 case when hackers broke into the state of Virginia's prescription monitoring site and threatened to sell private data, Schaaf doesn't believe this information can be properly protected.

"There is no data online that's secure," he said. "These things are very sensitive."

Schaaf, who is also a physician, questions whether these databases work.

According to a 2011 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while drug monitoring programs do cut down on the amount of prescription opioids available in communities, which the report states should reduce abuse; they do not make a statistical difference in overdose deaths.

"If we're going to infringe on people's liberty, we ought to at least make sure it works," Schaaf said.

The Saline County Coroner believes the drug database deserves a chance, considering how most of these overdoses and addictions begin.

"I know it won't end the problem, but it will reduce the problem," Harlow said. "It's innocent people that get addicted to these pain medications."

Mahurin says if a monitoring system, like a database, had been in place to stop him from getting his hands on so many pills at once, he might have been able to stay in control, avoid two near-overdoses and prevent his family from going through hell.

"I'll never blame anyone for what I did, but getting to that point, there were so many things that, I feel like, I don't want somebody else to go through that."

Today, Mahurin is grateful for the people he can now help through recovery and the ones, like his family, who stood by him through his long fight.

"We say things like I would never, or we read stories in the paper and think I would never do that," he said. "But I know that we're all a lot closer than we think."

The Centers for Disease Control recommends every state has a monitoring program, saying there is plenty of data to show they do reduce doctor shopping and abuse.

Kansas, which has an active database, has one of the lowest rates of overdose deaths in the country, while Missouri sits near the top.

Republican Senator David Sater from Cassville, MO, plans to re-introduce a bill for a Missouri monitoring program in the next session, this time just targeting people who pay in cash for their prescriptions.

Sater says 80 percent of people already have some kind of oversight on their prescriptions through Medicaid or private insurance. He points out that has not raised privacy concerns and says the only group that now has no monitoring is the 20 percent that pays in cash, the very group most likely to abuse the system.

The president of the Missouri Sheriff's Association also supports a prescription monitoring program in Missouri. He says they save lives and would help law enforcement identify "pill mills," facilities that illegally prescribe opioid pain drugs.

There's also anecdotal evidence from law enforcement in other states that the databases make their jobs easier. The PMP Center for Excellence quotes one investigator from the Ohio Narcotics Agency saying, "This database is like cell phones and e-mail - what the heck did we do without it?"

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