WASHINGTON — Congress is considering creating a national database that could alert pharmacists and doctors to potential prescription opioid abuse.

Last year, 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses.

"We absolutely have to get smarter about how we use technology and data analysis to fight this crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J. 3rd District, whose Bipartisan Heroin Task Force in Congress is sponsoring the Analyzing and Leveraging Existing Rx Transactions (ALERT) Act. “By giving pharmacists, insurance companies, and programs like Medicare a new tool to understand the data they already have, we can help prevent further harm.”

The law would require the Department of Health and Human Services to work with the private sector to establish a Prescription Safety Alert System.

It will analyze the transaction data that pharmacists and payers, like insurance companies or government programs like Medicare, already generate whenever prescriptions are filled.

Pharmacists will be able to access someone's prescription history and look for red flags before filling a new dose.

"Every prescription has somebody paying for it, whether it's a private insurance company or a government program. All of these prescriptions have payers and they have information," MacArthur said. "My bill allows the government to mine all of that, be very careful about people's privacy, and allows artificial intelligence and systems to look at prescription use as it cuts across all of these different systems and identifies red flags."

MacArthur said these red flags can help pharmacies stop the abuse of drugs.

"It might show doctor shopping, pharmacy shopping, people buying across state lines, people using different programs to pay for them," he said.

The system doesn't prevent a doctor or a pharmacist from writing a prescription but can put one on hold.

"It gives a warning that says 'wait a minute, there looks to be a pattern here that's not consistent with the use of this opioid,'" MacArthur said.

The pharmacist could then give whatever doctor prescribed the medicine a phone call and discuss the red flags.

"It simply hits a pause button and pharmacists would have to go back to doctors and say, 'Are you aware that this person is seeing multiple doctors for the same thing or seeing doctors across state lines for the same thing?' and that gives that doctor a chance to say to their patient, 'You may need some help,'" MacArthur said.

He also hopes that through this legislation doctors will talk more with each other to help the patients.

"Doctors that are treating the same patient should be able to communicate with no fear of repercussions," MacArthur said. "The bill is aimed at making it clear that doctors that are talking to one another for the benefit of a patient ought to be held harmless. They shouldn't be afraid to share information that might save somebody's life."

The ALERT Act has been endorsed by numerous organizations representing pharmacies, behavioral health and substance abuse treatment experts, and heath technology providers, including the Brain Injury Association of America, Centerstone, CoverMyMeds, the eRx Network, Health IT Now, OCHIN, RelayHealth Pharmacy Solutions, the Kennedy Forum and Walgreens.