U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller believes the time has come for the federal government to consider ways to stem the rising tide of prescription drug problems in the United States.    As rampant abuse of prescription pills continues to climb the senator wants to explore ways the tide can be turned with the tools of Medicare and Medicaid.

Rockefeller chaired a Senate hearing on the matter in Washington Thursday.  Among the panel of expert witnesses was Dr. Jeffrey Coben, MD of the WVU Injury Control Research Center

Coben told senators it will take a variety of approaches to have an impact. He suggests some of the solutions are already in the works and noted Medicare and Medicaid's endorsement and advancement of electronic health records and e-prescriptions.

"These systems have great potential for not only reducing fraudulent prescriptions, but also for identifying potentially lethal combinations of prescription drugs," Coben testified.

He also backed the idea of the "Medical Home Model" which helps provide better education to patients prescribed the drugs and also helps with coordination of healthcare providers when a patient may be treated by more than one doctor.

While those areas help to prevent abuse or problems with prescriptions before they happen, there is precious little help after the damage is done.

"We must recognize the important role for substance abuse treatment," said Coben. "And the very real and critical shortage of treatment service availability throughout the country."

Coben further added in his remarks the treatment should be covered by Medicare and Medicaid and providers of that care need to be reimbursed for their work in rehabbing a patient who's become hooked on the pain medicine.

Coben believes it would also be important to develop equally effective but safer pain relievers.  He says adding controlled dispensing units would make the quantities of pain pills available harder to procure.

Dr. Coben believes the government could have a positive impact on the problem if it finds the will to stay the course with a multi-fronted approach.  He compared the problem to the problem of automobile deaths 30 to 40 years ago.   He says the action of government with improvements in car design, seat belt laws, higher standards for driving, and tougher punishment for offenders have all had a positive impact.  He says while poisoning deaths are up 125 percent in the past 20-years, traffic fatalities have been reduced by 25 percent.

"While regulations and other approaches involving Medicare and Medicaid cannot solve this problem alone, they can certainly play an important role." said Coben.