The number of Erie County residents dying from opioid drug overdoses fell last year, reversing a lethal body count trend for the first time since 2013.
The number of deaths remains high, though not as high as once projected. The Erie County Health Department recorded 268 suspected and confirmed opioid-related drug deaths in 2017. That's a drop of 11 percent from 2016 but still higher than in 2015.
More than a thousand Erie County residents have died from opioid-related drug use in the past five years.
"We are not at the end of the opiate epidemic in Erie County. There's no doubt about that," County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said at a news conference Tuesday. "But I'd like to think, at least, that we're at the beginning of the end."
Poloncarz called the number of deaths unacceptable, but he said Erie County is starting to see success even as other communities still wrestle with higher death rates. He pointed to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed a 7.7 percent increase of overdose fatalities in New York State and a 19.3 percent increase in New York City from July 2016 to July 2017.
Poloncarz said he sees "light at the end of the tunnel."
If more suspected deaths in 2017 are eliminated as true opioid-related fatalities, the death rate for last year would be even lower.
"This is a tremendous sign that the work we have been doing in our community over the last two years is making a difference," he said. "The work we've done is showing progress, and the best progress we can ever make is saving lives."
He added the county has not embraced a single approach to combating the opioid crisis, but has instead pursued multiple steps that include education, prevention, law enforcement and treatment.
"This is a fight," Poloncarz said. "This is an all-hands-on-deck fight. But we are seeing progress."
The majority of overdose deaths in Erie County results from the street sale of fentanyl and fentanyl derivatives, far more potent and lethal than heroin and other prescription painkillers.
In New York State, the governor's I-STOP program has brought a halt to doctor shopping for duplicate opioid pain prescriptions.
Erie County's Medicaid data shows opioid prescriptions for the popular combination drug hydrocodone-acetaminophen have fallen considerably in recent years as more physicians are educated about the addictive properties of such drugs, Poloncarz said.
Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein acknowledged that until recently, the Health Department had estimated the number of last year's deaths to exceed the 2016 mark because so many suspected opioid fatalities had not yet been fully tested due to short staffing and the lack of advanced testing tools. With the hiring of a new medical examiner and new testing tools, that backlog should not be so large anymore, she said.
Most victims continue to be young, white and male.
- Whites account for 84 percent of deaths.
- Men comprise 74 percent of last year's confirmed fatalities.
- The age most at risk remains between 20 and 39, though 2017 showed a marked decline in deaths in that age range compared with the year before.
- 52 percent of deaths occurred in the suburbs and rural areas, compared with 44 percent in Buffalo.
"There is no place in Erie County that has not been effected," Burstein said. "There is no place that is safe."
Poloncarz and Burstein announced a new, grant-funded billboard campaign to promote the county's Addiction Hotline, 831-7007, as a resource for both drug users and loved ones. Three different billboards encouraging residents to get help will be put up across the county in April and stay up through the summer.
The hotline, designed to be the fastest route for receiving advice, information and rapid access to treatment, has been criticized by some county legislators as being both costly, underutilized and less efficient than originally anticipated. County leaders hope the billboard campaign will lead to greater awareness and use of the hotline, operated by Crisis Services.
In a related issue last week, Poloncarz pushed back against a report from Republican congressional staffers with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that outlined how the federal Medicaid program contributed to the nationwide opioid crisis.
The report, “Drugs for Dollars: How Medicaid Helps Fuel the Opioid Epidemic,” highlighted how increased access to addictive painkilling drugs was a factor – though not the only factor – in the growing drug-related death toll.
Drug overdose deaths rose at a rate nearly twice as fast in states that embraced Medicaid expansion, like New York, versus non-expansion states, according to the report.
Poloncarz sent a detailed critique to the Senate committee chairman, called the report "inaccurate" and issued a statement – noticed and supported by some other national Medicaid experts – saying the committee’s report was built on old information and stereotypes used "to manufacture an incorrect viewpoint."
"Simply put, we have seen no evidence that the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has fueled the opioid epidemic in Erie County, nor that Medicaid funding somehow fuels opioid addiction,” Poloncarz said in a statement. “To make these claims with no supporting evidence is wrong and muddies the water on a very important public health topic."
He also referred to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed annual U.S. opioid prescribing rates increased from 2006 to 2010, prior to Medicaid’s expansion, and then decreased thereafter, including in the period following Medicaid’s expansion in 2014.
He and other experts also pointed out that Medicaid not only prescribes medication but provides important access to drug treatment programs designed to help address the growing epidemic.