By Eric Eyre

West Virginia is taking steps to clamp down on the proliferation of prescription opioids, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Tuesday.

Starting in January, doctors who prescribe pain pills to Medicaid patients and to public employees with state health insurance will be required to follow recent prescribing guidelines developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 1,100 Medicaid recipients in West Virginia are now receiving prescription opioids for chronic pain. Another 500 workers with health benefits through the state Public Employees Insurance Agency also have pain-pill prescriptions.

"These new guidelines will give physicians and patients the facts they need to make more informed decisions about treatment," Tomblin said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday. "With more than 600 opiate-related overdose deaths in West Virginia last year, we must continue making every positive change we can to break the cycle of addiction."

The state Department of Health and Human Resources expects to begin educating doctors and other medical professionals about the CDC guidelines later this month.

The DHHR and PEIA will require doctors to seek prior authorization before they prescribe large amounts of opioid medications.

"It's a two-page prior-authorization form," said Dr. James Becker, medical director of West Virginia's Medicaid program. "It's a checklist of the things recommended by the CDC. If they do that, they will be allowed to keep their patient on whatever dosage they recommend."

Prescribers also must follow an "opioid treatment plan template," which lists safe prescribing practices.

"The state intends to implement these guidelines to reduce the opportunity for opioid overuse and abuse while preserving access to necessary drugs for those patients who truly need them," DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling said.

The requirements exempt opioid prescribing for people with cancer and terminal illnesses.

The CDC guidelines say opioids should not be the first choice for treating chronic pain. The guidelines also suggest prescribing the lowest possible dosage of pain pills, if they're part of a treatment plan. The CDC urges doctors to exercise caution when prescribing opioids and to monitor their patients closely.

"This gives us an opportunity to do a better job of managing those people with chronic pain," Becker said. "If we do this well, I think we'll see more responsible use of medicine."

Becker plans to talk about the new requirements at the West Virginia Medical Association's Appalachian Addiction Conference, on Saturday.

"We've got a lot of people already on board for doing this," he said. "It's been an interesting collaborative effort. I think it's going to work fine."

(c)2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)