If anyone has an intimate understanding of the scourge that is the opioid epidemic hammering this nation, it is physicians, other medical personnel and, especially, medical examiners. They dealt with approximately 64,000 overdose deaths nationwide last year, up from 52,000 the year before. Addiction claimed hundreds of lives in Western New York last year, and shows little sign of slowing down.
Steps are being taken to both prevent new addictions and treat those already addicted, but the death toll continues to mount.
Because so many addictions begin with the abuse of prescription painkillers, one focus has been on reducing the number of painkillers accessible to the public. Doctors are learning to offer alternative pain management techniques and dispense fewer opioid pills per prescription. I-STOP, the state’s opioid prescription monitoring program enacted in 2013, cuts down on the ability of abusers to get prescriptions from multiple doctors.
There are situations in which the strong painkillers are necessary, but they should be a last resort. While the new rules are an obstacle for patients with a real need, they are a necessary reaction to overprescribing.
It wasn’t that long ago that the potential harmful effects for both patients and those with surreptitious access to painkillers were not well understood. Users could easily become addicted, and when pills ran out or became too expensive, addicts turned to much cheaper heroin, which is often laced with deadly fentanyl.
A recent story in The News chronicled an encouraging turn in the number of painkiller prescriptions for Medicaid patients. The narcotic painkiller combination hydrocodone-acetaminophen, which was the most prescribed medication in Erie County for almost a decade, last year dropped to third place. So far this year, the drug has dropped to fifth place.
Medicaid serves more than 250,000 residents in Erie County, and experts expect the trend is reflected in the county as a whole.
On the law enforcement front, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently traveled across the state to call on lawmakers to classify 11 fentanyl analogs as controlled substances. The designation would allow harsher penalties for their manufacture and sale.
He has also directed the state Department of Financial Services to advise health insurers against placing arbitrary limits on the number of naloxone doses covered by a health insurance plan. Also known as Narcan, it is used to reverse fentanyl overdoses.
Buffalo has a first-in-the-nation opioid court that offers addicts the opportunity to go through drug treatment in return for the possibility of reduced charges.
For his part, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn has promised to crack down on opioid dealers by charging them with a homicide-related offense if a buyer dies of an overdose. “Let this be a message to drug dealers,” he said, “that if you sell drugs and the person dies, I am coming after you.”
Still, people keep becoming addicted and addicts keep dying. This is a long battle that will require a continuing stream of new strategies.