by William A. Green, Esq.

The battle against the rising epidemic of prescription narcotic abuse continues as West Virginia’s Supreme Court issued an opinion which should put physicians and pharmacies on notice nationwide. The court held that healthcare providers could be liable for contributing to the opioid addictions of their patients, allowing plaintiffs to maintain a civil cause of action against these providers for negligently prescribing and dispensing opioids. The plaintiffs allege that this negligence caused or contributed to their addiction to narcotics, although they admit to engaging in criminal activity to acquire and abuse these drugs. Many of the plaintiffs were originally prescribed narcotic pain medications, including hydrocodone and oxycodone, for injuries sustained in workplace accidents.

While a West Virginia decision is not binding on Georgia courts, a judge could cite it as persuasive authority and issue a similar opinion under Georgia law. More importantly, healthcare providers will likely review their narcotic prescribing policies in light of this decision.

The influence of the decision could therefore potentially benefit employers and insurers who incur the direct costs of over-prescribing narcotic pain medications. This type of medical decision-making can lead to lingering claims, doctor shopping, and drug addiction. Moreover, returning the employee to work can be difficult, if not impossible, when the treating physician is recommending prolonged use of narcotics. The employee often indicates that he cannot perform his regular duty position due to the powerful side-effects of the medication or that, without his medication, the pain is too severe to perform any type of work.

As we have reported previously, Georgia already has several measures in place to curb over-prescribing of pain medications including Georgia Composite Medical Board Rule 360-3-.06, which mandates random drug testing in certain cases involving the prescription of narcotic pain medication for more than 90 days. Also in place is the Georgia Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a database allowing physicians in workers’ compensation claims to immediately access the controlled substance prescribing information for particular claimants.