By Kendall Helblig
WASHINGTON: Prescription drug overdose deaths have risen sharply in recent years, and a majority of states are not implementing the best strategies to curb them, according to a new report from a health-care advocacy group.
The report from the Washington-based Trust for America’s Health, which was released Monday, found that 28 states — including Alaska, Pennsylvania and Texas — and the District of Columbia had put in place six or fewer out of 10 promising strategies to lessen prescription drug overuse.
According to the report, prescription drugs are now to blame for the majority of fatal drug overdoses in the U.S., surpassing the number of deaths related to heroin and cocaine combined. Since 1999, overdose deaths from all kinds of drugs have at least doubled in 29 states, and in 10 of those — including South Carolina, Mississippi, Missouri and Georgia — the rate has tripled. In Kentucky, the rate has quadrupled.
“This is a very real epidemic — and warrants a strong public health response,” Andrea Gielen, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.
The study acknowledges that prescription drug overdose deaths have grown so quickly that extensive research is lacking on the best ways to prevent them. Even so, a range of methods have been developed based on recommendations from medical, public health and drug prevention experts.
Florida, for example, is proof that a comprehensive approach can lead to improvement, according to the report.
By initiating a range of public health strategies and legislative changes — such as starting a prescription drug monitoring program and closing “pill mills,” which prescribe and dispense drugs outside the usual standards of medical practice — Florida saw a decrease in prescription drug-related deaths in 2011, the report said. Deaths from oxycodone, a powerful narcotic, alone decreased by more than 17 percent.
The majority of states, though, have been slow to implement strategies.
Only two states, Vermont and New Mexico, scored 10 out of 10 on the indicators the group examined. Four states scored 9 out of 10, including Washington and Kentucky. California, Illinois and North Carolina were among the 11 states that scored 8 out of 10. Five states, including Florida, scored 7 out of 10. Missouri and Nebraska scored 3 out of 10, and South Dakota scored the lowest, with just 2 out of 10 indicators.
Monitoring programs such as the one Florida started are one strategy states can use. According to the report, they can “help identify major sources of prescription drug diversion such as prescription fraud, forgeries, doctor shopping and improper prescribing and dispensing.”
While nearly all states now have such monitoring programs, the report found that they vary dramatically in terms of their funding, use and capability. Only 16 states, for example, require medical providers to use the programs.