It's being called an epidemic; one of the biggest problems facing Western Virginia, prescription drug abuse.

The Food and Drug Administration just released new guidelines it would like to see implemented to curb the problem.

The agency wants to change the classification of heavily-abused pain pills from Class 3 to Class 2 narcotics.

This would mean no refills without a new, written prescription, and more stringent reporting guidelines for drugs like Vicoden, Lortab, any drug with some combination of hydrocodone.

There's certainly a disagreement about this move, whether it will help or not, but it all depends on who you ask.

Timothy Heaphy, the US Attorney for Virginia's Western District, puts its simply.

"I really have not seen in my 4 years in this job a more pressing, more significant problem than this.  I don't think I'm overstating the significance of the problem to call the abuse of prescription drugs an epidemic," Heaphy said.

Heaphy made that statement last week after the sentencing of Dr. Linda Cheek, a Pulaski County Pain Doctor sentenced to 33 months in prison after being found guilty of 172 counts of illegally writing and distributing pain medication.

"Dr. Cheek was a drug dealer in a white coat," Heaphy said.

Heaphy says 20% of the doctors write 80% of pain medications in western Virginia.

He has worked very closely with the Drug Enforcement Agency to create a plan to curb prescription abuse.

"We have to implement a comprehensive strategy that combines targeted enforcement and effective prevention," Heaphy said.

"We know that there are people out there that don't listen to the doctor and abuse things," said Kay Warnick.

Pharmacists like Kay Warnick at Cundiff's Pharmacy in Vinton have big concerns if these recommendations are implemented.

She says targeting the bad doctors, pharmacies and patients is all well and good, but it might negatively affect those who actually need the pain medication.

"Maybe the doctor may be feeding into their abuse problem if there is one, but also, the doctor may be empathetic to their pain needs. There's a fine line," Warnick said.

Timothy Heaphy is adamant about finding and stopping the other doctors like Linda Cheek in Western Virginia.   

Another statistic he gave to characterize this problem in our part of the state: the amount of accidental overdoses of pain pills in our part of the state accounts for half of the deaths in the state even though though all the biggest population centers are in Northern and Eastern Virginia.

Heaphy says that prescription drug abuse is especially a problem in rural counties.

Heaphy specifically mentioned after the Cheek sentencing; this is a big issue in some counties in far southwest Virginia.