Fewer prescriptions are being written for opioid drugs, and fewer people are dying of opioid drug overdoses.
Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein shared both pieces of news Thursday with the Erie County Legislature as evidence that the tide is turning in the battle to combat a deadly drug epidemic that has killed more than 1,300 county residents since 2012.
The number of county residents dying due to fatal opioid overdoses this year continues to fall, leading to growing hope that 2018 will mark the second-straight year of declining opioid deaths. So far, 182 residents have died of a confirmed or suspected overdose. That compares with 268 for all of last year and 301 the year before.
Though this year is not yet over, Burstein said, "If we continue with the same trend, we will be lower."
The opioid crisis remains serious, with still more people dying this year than in 2015. But this year's death rate is notably lower than in early 2016, when county leaders were alarmed to find local residents were dying at a rate of one a day.
Meanwhile, new Medicaid prescription data shows that doctors are being increasingly conservative in how often they prescribe opioid painkillers to patients.
The opioid combination drug hydrocodone-acetaminophen has gone from being the most prescribed drug for Medicaid patients in 2015 to the 10th most prescribed drug now, said Burstein. Last year the same drug ranked fifth. Hydrocodone-acetaminophen combines the powerful narcotic hydrocodone with the pain-killing ingredient better known by its commercial name as Tylenol.
Burstein attributed the decline of hydrocodone prescriptions to greater awareness among physicians about the addictive properties of opioid painkillers and the reduction of pain treatment facilities in Western New York.
"Our community partners have really stepped up and are changing their prescribing practices," she said.
The prescription data was culled from 2.1 million prescriptions written for Medicaid patients from Jan. 1 to Sept. 21. County officials consider the data to be fairly reflective of physician prescribing patterns across the county.
Atorvastatin calcium, an anti-cholesterol medication sold under the brand name Lipitor, is now the most prescribed Medicaid drug, followed by the anti-inflammatory painkiller ibuprofen. The third-most prescribed drug is omeprazole, an acid reflux and ulcer medication sold under the brand name Prilosec. All three drugs have ranked within the top five for the past several years.