Documents obtained by CBC Radio show there's been a big increase in the number of claims for pain-killing drugs for First Nations people in the Yukon.

Health Canada statistics show a 25 per cent increase in the number of payments Ottawa made for prescription drugs under its non-insured health benefits program. That's the program that funds a variety of medical expenses for aboriginal and Inuit Canadians.

The data for 2002-2003 show Ottawa paid for 55,643 drug claims in Yukon, up from 44,279 in 2001-2002.

Among drugs on the increase are the painkiller Tylenol 3 with codeine, and the anti-anxiety drug Ativan – both of which can be addictive and re-sold on the street.

Tylenol 3 prescriptions skyrocketed almost 70 per cent.

That increase was most pronounced in Whitehorse and Watson Lake, two of the four Yukon communities with pharmacies.

Watson Lake had 1,122 government-paid prescriptions for the drug, about one-quarter the total purchased through the program in Whitehorse. However, Watson Lake has about one-tenth the population of the capital.

People in that community have sounded the warning for years that prescription drug abuse is rampant.

The Health Canada statistics also show Ativan prescriptions increased by 250 per cent in Watson Lake, equalling more than half the amount of paid claims in Whitehorse.

Watson Lake had 898 claims paid for Ativan. Dawson City, a community of comparable size, had 35 claims in the same period.

The data also includes purchases of the drug's generic equivalents.

Better tracking needed, says medical head

Some Yukon physicians say this underscores the need for better tracking of prescription drugs in the territory.

"It's evident that there are quite significant apparent increases in Tylenol prescriptions and Ativan prescriptions in a number of Yukon communities, including Whitehorse and Watson Lake," says Dr. Wayne MacNicol, the president of the Yukon Medical Association.

MacNicol says he'd like to see Health Canada data over five years for a clearer picture of any trends taking place.

In the past, MacNicol says, Yukon First Nation chiefs have expressed concern about prescription drug abuse to the Yukon Medical Association and other agencies.

Right now, there's no way to track most prescriptions for non-aboriginal Yukoners, or anyone who pays cash. However, there is a program in place to track certain narcotics to prevent abuse.

Places like British Columbia have a province-wide computer network to track prescription abuse.

MacNicol says it may be time to introduce this in the Yukon, even though it will be costly.

"I think the time has come that we look at this more closely with a view to implementing this and I think the government is interested in doing this," he says.

MacNicol says it's tough for doctors to deny painkillers to patients who say they're in pain, and tough for pharmacists to catch patients who are getting prescriptions from more than one doctor.