The largely hidden issue of prescription drug addiction and death is being exposed as a growing epidemic.
Presidential candidates are talking about it, particularly ahead of Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, which has a big heroin and opioid abuse problem. But New Hampshire isn’t alone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that every day 44 people in the U.S. die from prescription opioid overdose. Prescription opioid abuse reportedly costs billions of dollars — 46 percent in lost workplace productivity, 45 percent in health care costs and 9 percent in criminal justice expenses. Just last Thursday, 11 people were charged in federal court in Kansas City with a $1.2 million conspiracy to distribute oxycodone through forged and fraudulent prescriptions.
The problem also has grown in the last 20 years with more aggressive prescription drug marketing for pain relief. Pharmaceutical company sales representatives directly market opioid prescription drugs to physicians with attractive incentives for patients.
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The CDC says common drugs in prescription overdose deaths are hydrocodone or Vicodin, oxycodone or OxyContin, oxymorphone or Opana and methadone, especially when prescribed for pain. Drug misuse and abuse resulted in 2.5 million emergency room visits in 2011, of which 1.4 million were tied to prescription drugs.
Opioid users often find their way to heroin, which is less costly and delivers a similar effect.
Sen. Claire McCaskill last month in Jefferson City held a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging to draw attention to the worsening problems.
Presidential candidates have helped draw attention to the issue using personal stories of family members. Fortunately, President Barack Obama has proposed more than $1 billion in new funding to attack it.
The money would expand access to treatment for prescription drug abuse and heroin use. It would beef up treatment efforts to assist people in a sustained recovery. Of that money, $920 million would support cooperative agreements with states, expanding access to medication-assisted treatment.
States will get funds based on the severity of the prescription opioid problem. The CDC notes that “many states report problems with for-profit, high-volume pain clinics (so-called ‘pill mills’) that prescribe large quantities of painkillers to people who don’t need them medically.”
In Missouri and Kansas, there were 82.2 to 95 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people. In other states it was higher, including neighboring Oklahoma and Arkansas.
That’s unconscionable when health care professionals know the addictive qualities and high overdose death rates from prescription opioid medications.
The Obama budget proposal includes $50 million for the National Health Service Corps to increase access for substance use treatment and $30 million to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs. About $500 million — an increase of more than $90 million — would go the Justice Department and Health and Human Services for prevention.
The focus on treatment and prevention stands a greater chance of being successful than criminalizing people for a national epidemic that is far beyond individuals’ ability to control.