Federal officials call improper prescription drug use "an epidemic" in the United States.

Some Pennsylvania doctors are pushing for a change they say could help curb prescription drug abuse, and a state House panel is set to discuss the legislation, House Bill 1651, Tuesday.

Besides concerns over fraud and abuse, in Pennsylvania prescription overdose is a leading cause of death among young people.

The state attorney general's office keeps a database of prescriptions for the most addictive narcotics--drugs such as OxyContin that also have a high street value.

Right now, the state's prescription monitoring program tracks Schedule II controlled substances, and the information is available only to law enforcement. A new proposal would expand the database to include less addictive drugs--and give access to doctors and pharmacists.

Dr. Jeanmarie Perrone, an emergency room physician at Penn Medicine, says data show emergency department visits are up because of prescription drug abuse.

"It now exceeds the amount of deaths from cocaine and heroin. Prescription drugs are essentially more lethal than cocaine and heroin, and prescription drug deaths have quadrupled in the last decade," she said.

Perrone envisions a secure, easy-to-access Web portal where doctors could look up a patient's medication history. She says giving health-care providers access could help curb "doctor shopping" and identify those who need substance abuse help. She's convinced by stories from medical colleagues in Minnesota who used that state's database to improve patient care.

"So they accessed the database while the patient was there, and they were able to print out all the prescriptions that she had gotten in the past six months," Perrone said. "She broke down in tears and realized that she had a big problem, and she went straight from there to a rehab program."

Across the country, most state drug-monitoring programs already give access to health providers.

Striving for a balance

The Pennsylvania Medical Society supports the proposal, but spokesman Scot Chadwick says the legislation is still evolving.

"What we are trying to do is find a balance between the justifiable desire of law enforcement officials to pursue investigations through the database against the fundamental rights of privacy of the thousands of patients who quite honestly and straightforwardly obtain these controlled substances for legitimate purposes," said Chadwick, the society's vice president of legislative affairs.

Last year, Pennsylvania's database helped investigators break up a Philadelphia prescription drug ring dubbed "Operation Fishtown Refill."

Pennsylvania's attorney general's office supports expanding the state database to include Schedule III through V drugs.

But officials in that office are concerned that the current legislation would move an expanded database to another agency and limit access for crime investigators.

In testimony this summer, the deputy chief of the Bureau of Narcotics Investigations said any controlled substance database should be housed by the attorney general's office.