9 Investigates: NC Medical Board calls prescription drug overdoses a health crisis

9 Investigates: NC Medical Board calls prescription drug overdoses

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The North Carolina Medical Board, calling prescription drug overdoses a public health crisis, is in the midst of a new effort to stop addiction and save lives.

Betsy Ragone now sees her son, Michael, only in photographs.

Michael, 30, visited his parents in January in their south Charlotte home and overdosed in his childhood bedroom on heroin and fentanyl.

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Ragone's husband found him after kicking down the door.

Shortly before Michael's death, Ragone said he talked about his addiction.

She said Michael told her that it started with a high school sports injury and a prescription for pain medication.

"This was his story that he told me. He was prescribed Vicodin and he got another prescription, a refill on it, and when that ran out, and he couldn't get any more, he started to buy pills on the street," Ragone said.

Across Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Gaston, Cleveland, Union and Anson counties, 134 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015.

Anchor Allison Latos looked through the 57 autopsy reports for Mecklenburg County and found victims in their 20s to their 60s overdosed on drugs like oxycodone, fentanyl and hydrocodone.

The North Carolina Medical Board is trying to stop addiction and prevent overdoses by analyzing doctors' prescribing records and the steps they take to prevent and identify patient misuse of painkillers.

"It is critical that we look at it because even one overdose or narcotic opioid poisoning is too many," said Dr. Mark Romanoff.

The Charlotte physician is on the committee that created the new investigative program.

The medical board is investigating 12 doctors who are considered high-dose prescribers and 60 physicians who had two or more patient deaths from opioid poisonings between July 2014 and June 2015.

Latos asked Romanoff if the statistic of 60 physicians with two or more patients poisoned by pain medications was alarming.

"It is. You know, it is certainly something we're very concerned about," he said.

Romanoff said investigations don't necessarily mean inappropriate prescribing, but the medical board will check to see if doctors have safeguards in place, including performing risk assessment of patients, random urine screenings, pill counts and searching a patients' names in the state database to make sure they're not receiving opioids from other doctors.

"Do you think there will be more doctors the medical board takes a look at after this?" asked Latos.

"There will be, unfortunately, other poisonings," said Romanoff. "So I suspect there will be other physicians we look at."

"I hope for them to be as aware and armed as possible and a plan in place for patients who have to have opiate medication prescribed," Ragone said.

Ragone supports the new approach, knowing how hard addiction is to beat. She wishes she had the chance to tell her son.

"'I love you and I understand.' That's what it would be. I understand better now than I did when you were here," she said.

She's now channeling her heartache to help others overcome addiction with a nonprofit called Michael's Voice. Read more about the nonprofit at http://www.michaelsvoice.org/.

The medical board will not reveal the identities of the doctors being investigated but hopes to complete the investigations by the fall.

If the board finds issues with the way any of the doctors prescribe opioid drugs, the consequences could vary from more educational training to disciplinary action by the board.