Opioid Death Risks

FILE - This Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows pills of the painkiller hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Accidental overdoses aren't the only deadly risk from using powerful prescription painkillers _ the drugs may also contribute to heart-related deaths and other fatalities, according to research published Tuesday, June 14, 2016. "As bad as people think the problem of opioid use is, it's probably worse," said Wayne Ray, the lead author and a health policy professor at Vanderbilt University's medical school. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot) ORG XMIT: NY647

Opioid prescription rates have been on the decline throughout Louisiana, with parishes within the Baton Rouge metro area seeing an average decrease of approximately 24 percent since reported highs in 2010, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

While officials in the state's addiction services field call the CDC's findings "encouraging," they also acknowledge there's more work to do in helping people hooked on opioids, citing other data that shows opioid-related deaths — involving both heroin and prescription pills — rapidly grew in East Baton Rouge Parish within the last five years. 

Janice Peterson, assistant secretary for the state Health Department's Office of Behavioral Health, believes new laws and federal money targeted at the issue will hopefully save more lives and keep Louisiana's prescription rates on a downward trend.

"I think a lot of what we're seeing is in direct relationship with the Prescription Monitoring Program that was implemented in 2006," Peterson said. "That program is basically requiring a database for doctors and pharmacists to actually input information about what type of prescribing regarding opioids are being done across the state, and country." 

The program limits patients' opportunities to "doctor shop," which typically involves obtaining multiple prescriptions for opioid medications simultaneously from different doctors.

Opioid prescriptions are a category of narcotic pain medications that include OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and codeine. A 2016 report from the CDC estimated about 20 percent of the patients who see doctors for non-cancer pain symptoms or pain-related illnesses are prescribed opioids.

Restrictions on opioid prescriptions have been criticized by some as hurting patients who need the medications to deal with chronic pain. But a 2013 study also showed a link between prior, nonmedical opioid pill use and users trying heroin.

“The amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. is still too high, with too many opioid prescriptions for too many days at too high a dosage,” said Anne Schuchat, M.D., acting CDC director, in a news release for the new data.

During the recent legislative session, lawmakers and others said they worried about leftover bottles of powerful pain meds sitting in bathrooms, which could end up being taken by people for illicit reasons. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards recently signed into law a legislative package meant to address that problem. One measure limits a first-time prescription to just a week-long supply unless patients are suffering from chronic pain or cancer. Another requires doctors and other prescribers to consult the state's Prescription Monitoring Program database before any initial prescription of a Schedule II drug, including opioids, and obtain three hours of continuing medical education every three years.

The new CDC report tracked annual prescription measures throughout the country from 2006 to 2015, finding that opioid prescriptions spiked significantly in 2010 but has decreased every year since. Nationally, the amount of opioids prescribed peaked at 782 morphine milligram equivalents per person in 2010 and dropped to 640 MME in 2015. MME is the amount of opioids in milligrams, accounting for differences in opioid drug type and strength, according to the report. 

The CDC reports notes that prescription rates vary from county-to-county. 

In the Baton Rouge metro area, East Baton Rouge Parish saw the amount of opioids prescribed between 2010 and 2015 fall from 1029.3 MME to 678.8 MME — a 34 percent decrease. 

West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Ascension parishes saw decreases of approximately 22 percent, 19 percent and 24 percent, respectively, over the same five-year period.

Lafayette Parish saw the highest reported drop with a 50 percent decrease from 2010 to 2015. 

The parishes of Livingston and Pointe Coupee saw slight increases in opioid prescriptions, but they were under 10 percent, according to the CDC report. 

The CDC only tagged counties with at least a 10 percent uptick in opioid prescriptions has having an increase in the report, which only applied to 10 of Louisiana's 64 parishes, according to the report.

The Louisiana Department of Health was also awarded $8.1 million in grant funding from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A portion of those funds, being doled out to the state annually for two years, will help Capital Area Human Services establish opioid treatment services in the near future for those suffering with addiction.

Between 2012 to 2015, East Baton Rouge Parish saw its heroin overdose deaths spike from five to 41 people before dropping back to 34 people in 2016, according to the parish coroner's office. Coroner Beau Clark also maintains an "other drugs" category of overdoses, which is compromised mostly of people who died from taking opiate-based prescription pills. Those numbers have also climbed, from 23 such deaths in 2012 to 55 last year. 

"Opioid addiction cuts across all socioeconomic levels. It affects everyone from the rich to the poor," said Karen Pino, program manager for Capital Area Human Services. "And it can be potentially deadly for anyone."

The federal dollars are also being allocated toward implementing educational campaigns targeted at those at risk for opioid disorder and providing financial assistant and support to those suffering from addiction. 

"Folks who have opioid addictions keep saying they don't have anywhere to go for treatment or they don't have money and/or Medicaid doesn't actually pay for everything," Peterson said. "So this is going to allow us to saturate the market and try to get people the treatment they need." 

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.