Congress again pushes Defense to track Rx drug use in combat zones

The House Appropriations Committee has directed the Defense Department to find a way to capture and track pharmaceutical information electronically to monitor prescriptions to troops engaged in combat operations.

In its report on the 2012 military budget, the committee expressed concern that doctors were increasingly prescribing troops pain medications that can lead to dependency.

Nextgov reported in January that 14 percent of soldiers had been prescribed opiate painkillers in 2010, with 95 percent -- or 72,764 -- of those prescriptions for oxycodone, a highly addictive drug.

The committee said tracking pain management drugs is inconsistent in the department, "particularly in theater, where prescription data is not always transmitted to the Department of Defense Pharmacy Data Transaction Service," a central prescription data repository.

Defense must examine the feasibility of electronically transmitting such data from combat zones, the committee said, so patient usage and physician prescribing patterns can be monitored and tracked.

The report also gave Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, two months from the time the budget is passed to deliver a report on the required steps and potential obstacles toward electronic transmission of prescription drug data.

Woodson told a May hearing of the House Appropriations' Defense subcommittee that he took information technology specialists to Afghanistan to help resolve the drug tracking problem but he did not say when it would be fixed.

This is the second time in a year Congress has pushed Defense to track drugs prescribed to troops engaged in combat operations. Last June the Senate Armed Services Committee in its report on the 2011 Defense authorization bill said it expected Defense to expeditiously develop "a reliable method to track and manage the prescription and use of pharmaceuticals, to include psychotropic medications, by deployed service members."

Though it can't track drugs that lead to addiction and abuse, the Military Health System requested $23 million in funding to expand testing of illegal use of painkiller drugs and benzodiazepine tranquilizers, such as Valium, a project the committee did not immediately buy into.

In strong language, the committee said, "The upward trend in prescription drug abuse is, first and foremost, a direct consequence of the extraordinary burdens placed upon the force under the high operations tempo of the last decade.

"Due diligence must be exercised to ensure that cases of prescription drug abuse are handled properly by the chain of command, and that wounded warriors are not unduly punished for prescription drug abuse that may arise from improper medical care," the committee said.

The committee said it will put funding for the drug testing program on hold until Defense develops a training program for commanders that will make sure they "properly utilize the information derived from prescription drug testing, including awareness of treatment alternatives, the circumstances under which disciplinary action is appropriate, and necessary measures to safeguard medical privacy."