Prescription Opioids Play Minor Role in Massachusetts Overdoses

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Two new studies in Massachusetts – one of the states hardest hit by the overdose crisis – highlight the role of multiple substances in most overdose deaths and how limiting the supply of prescription opioids has failed to reduce the number of drug deaths.

Researchers at Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction analyzed toxicology reports on nearly 2,250 fatal overdoses involving opioids in Massachusetts between 2014 and 2015. Overdose data in Massachusetts is considered more reliable because it is one of the few states to extensively use toxicology testing.

Only 9 percent of the deaths in Massachusetts involved prescription opioids alone. Most of the overdoses (72%) involved illicit fentanyl or heroin, while one in five (19%) involved a combination of heroin, fentanyl or prescription opioids.

Other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) and non-opioid medications (benzodiazepines and gabapentin) were also frequently involved.

“Using multiple substances, in addition to opioids, is the rule rather than the exception for opioid-related deaths,” researchers reported in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“Our study draws attention to the heterogeneity of the problem at hand and that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the overdose epidemic, which is increasingly driven by polysubstance use.”

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Over half of the Massachusetts overdoses involved someone with a diagnosed mental illness. Homelessness and a recent incarceration also raised the risk of a fatal overdose involving both opioids and stimulants.

"As a provider, these findings indicate a pressing need to address and treat not just opioid use disorder, but other substances that patients are misusing," said lead author Joshua Barocas, MD, an infectious disease physician at BMC. "To truly make a difference in reducing opioid overdose deaths, we must tackle issues such as homelessness and access to mental health services. This means not only investing in treatment but also implementing tailored programs that address the specific barriers to accessing care."

Opioid Prescriptions Down 39% since 2015

The number of opioid prescriptions has declined significantly in Massachusetts over the last four years, according to a recent report from the state’s Department of Public Health. In the first quarter of 2019 there were over 518,000 prescriptions filled for Schedule II opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone – a 39% decline from the first quarter of 2015.

But the decrease in prescriptions has failed to make much of a dent in Massachusetts’ opioid overdose rate, which peaked in 2016 with 2,100 deaths and remains stubbornly high.  

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

In 2018, nearly nine out of ten opioid-related deaths (89%) in the state involved illicit fentanyl, with cocaine (39%), heroin (32%), and benzodiazepines (40%) such as Xanax also commonly found.

Only about ten percent of the overdose deaths in the fourth quarter of 2018 involved prescriptions opioids, virtually unchanged from the 2014-2015 study.

Overdoses Soar in 2 States Despite Fewer Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

New studies from two of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania -- are throwing a damper on recent speculation that drug overdoses may have peaked.  

Researchers at Boston Medical Center released a startling study that found nearly 5 percent of people over the age of 11 in Massachusetts have an opioid use disorder.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also admitted in a Joint Intelligence Report that reducing the supply of prescription opioids in Pennsylvania failed to reduce the state’s soaring overdose rate and may have even increased demand for counterfeit painkillers. Pennsylvania had 5,456 fatal overdoses in 2017, a 65% increase from 2015.  

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“Implementation of legislation influencing prescription opioid prescribing has resulted in a decrease in availability; however, a corresponding decrease in demand is less certain,” the DEA report found.

“Practitioners may be offering non-opioid alternatives to pain management to their patients, but this is most likely due to increased scrutiny of prescribing habits, as well as legislated changes, not due to requests from patients seeking non-opioid products.”

Prescription opioids were involved in only 20% of Pennsylvania’s overdoses. Most of the deaths involve a combination of illicit drugs such fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and counterfeit medication.

“The increasing presence of counterfeit opioid CPDs (controlled prescription drugs) in Pennsylvania is an indicator of strong demand for opioid CPDs in the illicit market. Traffickers use substances such as heroin, fentanyl, and tramadol to create tablets that look like the opioid CPDs most commonly purchased on the street (e.g., oxycodone 30 milligram tablets). The tablets are often exact replicas with the shape, coloring, and markings consistent with authentic prescription medications,” the report found.

The DEA said heroin and fentanyl could be found in 97% of Pennsylvania’s counties and called the city of Philadelphia a “wholesale market” for illicit drugs from China and Mexico.

Opioid Use Disorder in Massachusetts

Illicit fentanyl is also blamed for a soaring number of fatal overdoses in Massachusetts, where researchers used a new method to estimate how many people have opioid use disorder (OUD).  

Instead of relying on insurance claims for addiction treatment, researchers used a database that links information from 16 state agencies on other forms of healthcare use. Researchers were then able to identify patients who have OUD and estimate those who have the disorder but aren't seeking treatment. Individuals with substance use disorders are often less likely to seek medical care or be insured. Many are also reluctant to admit they have a drug problem.  

"There are many people with opioid use disorder who do not encounter the health care system, which we know is a barrier to understanding the true impact of the opioid epidemic," said Joshua Barocas, MD, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, who was lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Barocas and his colleagues found the prevalence of opioid use disorder in Massachusetts rose from 2.72% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2015. People between the ages of 11 and 25 experienced the greatest increase in OUD – a demographic much younger than a typical chronic pain sufferer, who is usually middle aged.

In 2012, Massachusetts was one of the first states where insurers and healthcare providers took steps to reduce the supply of prescription opioids – measures that have yet to have any meaningful impact on the state’s overdose rate.  

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Massachusetts was also one of the first states to use toxicology screens from coroners and medical examiners to get a more accurate assessment of the drugs involved in overdoses.

According to the most recent report from the first quarter of 2018, nearly 90% of Massachusetts overdoses involve fentanyl, 43% percent involve cocaine, 42% involve benzodiazepines and 34% involve heroin. Prescription opioids were involved in only about 20% of the Massachusetts overdoses, the same rate as Pennsylvania.

Preliminary estimates released by the CDC last week show a modest 2.3% nationwide decline in opioid overdoses from September 2017 to March 2018. Over 48,000 people died from opioid overdoses during that period, with most of those deaths involving illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs.

90% of Massachusetts Overdoses Linked to Fentanyl

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly 90 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts now involve fentanyl, according to a new report that documents the rapidly changing nature of the opioid crisis. Less than 20 percent of drug overdoses in the state were linked to prescription opioids.

In the second quarter of 2018, Massachusetts health officials say 498 people died from an opioid-related overdose – the third straight quarter that opioid deaths have declined.

But the good news was tempered by the rising toll taken by fentanyl -- the synthetic opioid that’s become a deadly scourge on the black market. Fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, cocaine and counterfeit drugs to increase their potency. 

Because Massachusetts was one of the first states to conduct blood toxicology tests in overdose cases, it’s quarterly reports on drug deaths are considered more accurate than federal estimates and more likely to spot emerging trends in drug use. 

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"This quarterly report provides a new level of data revealing an unsettling correlation between high levels of synthetic fentanyl present in toxicology reports and overdose death rates. It is critically important that the Commonwealth understand and study this information so we can better respond to this disease and help more people,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Another trend documented in Massachusetts is the increasing role played by cocaine and benzodiazepines --- an anti-anxiety medication – in drug overdoses. In the first quarter of 2018, cocaine (43%) and benzodiazepines (42%) were involved in more overdoses than heroin (34%) and prescription opioids (19%). 

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Drug experts say many cocaine users may not realize their drug has been spiked with fentanyl, while many people who buy Xanax or Valium on the black market don’t know they’re getting counterfeit medication laced with fentanyl.

“If you are using illicit drugs in Massachusetts, you really have to be aware that fentanyl is a risk no matter which drug you’re using,” Dr. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts public health commissioner told The Boston Globe. “The increased risk of death related to fentanyl is what’s driving this epidemic.”

Fentanyl is also involved in a growing number of fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 5,456 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year. Of those, over 67% percent involved fentanyl. The presence of fentanyl or its chemical cousins in overdose deaths rose almost 400% in the state from 2015 to 2017.

Most overdoses involve multiple drugs and blood tests alone do not determine a cause of death -- only which drugs were present at the time of death.

The New Face of the Opioid Crisis

By Pat Anson, Editor

Caylee Cresta doesn’t have any illusions about being the next Internet star or YouTube sensation. But the 23-minute video she posted on what it’s like to be a chronic pain patient during an age of opioid hysteria has become a hit in the pain community.

“This video should be made to go viral,” one fan said.

“Caylee you did an amazing, persuasive presentation. Maybe you should be a lobbyist!” another one wrote.

“Single best piece of chronic pain patient advocacy I have ever seen. Absolutely brilliant!” wrote Chuck Malinowski.

Caylee’s video is not addressed to the pain community, but to the public at large. The 26-year old Massachusetts woman with fiery red hair looks directly into the camera and earnestly asks people to set aside their misconceptions about pain, addiction and the opioid crisis.

“I do not suffer from addiction and yet stigma will tell you that I do.  And that is a myth that we are going to change,” she says. “Don’t ever brush off the plight of the chronically ill because your lives can change in an instant, just as ours have.

“The fight against opiates is an uneducated one. This is a movement that lacks understanding in its most basic form. Every lawmaker is taking on this fight without ever consulting even a single chronically ill person. What does that mean? That means that the people who depend on these medications aren’t even being considered when taking them away.”

In her video, Caylee spends little time discussing her own experience as a pain patient. While still in high school, Caylee developed a rare and incurable neurological disorder called Stiff-person syndrome, which is characterized by strong muscle spasms and stiffness. The spams are so severe her lungs have collapsed twice.

“I’ll get such strong spasms in my throat and chest cavity that they create so much air that can’t escape (my lungs) that it just made them literally pop,” she told PNN. “My muscle spasms can break my bones, they’ll get that strong.”

Caylee’s symptoms were usually dismissed by doctors and it took years for her to get a proper diagnosis. Last year, a doctor at a pain clinic dropped her as a patient after getting a warning letter from Medicare that she was prescribing too many opioids. Caylee went without opioids for months, which is when her lungs burst.

Living in Fear

Although Massachusetts has a reputation as having some of the best healthcare in the world, Caylee now drives 3 hours one-way to see a neurologist in Connecticut.

“Any other doctor that I’ve seen over the years has literally looked at me and in one way or another and said, ‘Your prognosis is so dim. It’s so rare.’ They’re not even willing to take me on as a patient. My doctor has stuck by me and tried everything there is to try,” she says. 

Caylee has tried stem cells, chemotherapy and many other treatments. The only thing that works is opioid medication. Although she is once again able to get prescriptions for opioids, she often has trouble getting them filled. She and her husband went to 20 pharmacies one day before finding a pharmacist willing to fill her script.

“You live every single day in fear.  Every time you fill your prescription you go, okay, I’m going to have a life for another month. But you live that whole month with such anxiety and wondering what’s going to happen next,” she said. 

Caylee hopes her YouTube video will help educate the public about the daily challenges of being in pain and give some hope to pain sufferers.

“I want to fight for people going through this. I truly want to fight for them. I just want to let people know that they’re not alone. I want them to know that we’re all in this together,” says Caylee.

“What is probably the most humbling is when I get messages like ‘I would do anything for the world to be able to see this’ or ‘I would do anything for this to go viral and for people to understand what we go through.’ When I get messages like that, that let me know that these people feel like somebody is speaking for them, that touches me in a way that I can’t even explain.”

Florida’s Deadliest Rx Drug is Not a Painkiller

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission is debunking a popular myth about the overdose crisis.

The most deadly prescription drugs in the state are not opioid painkillers, but benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam).  Xanax alone killed more Floridians last year (813) than oxycodone (723).

The medical examiners analyzed toxicology and autopsy results for 11,910 people who died in Florida in 2016, noting not only what drugs were present at the time of death, but which drug actually caused the deaths.

The distinction is important and more accurate than the death certificate (ICD) codes often used by the CDC, which merely list the drugs that were present. Critics have long contended that CDC researchers cherry pick ICD data to inflate the number of deaths "involving" or "linked" to opioid medication, in some cases counting the same death twice.   

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Florida made an effort to get the numbers right.

“Florida’s medical examiners were asked to distinguish between the drugs determined to be the cause of death and those drugs that were present in the body at the time of death. A drug is indicated as the cause of death only when, after examining all evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death,” the report explains.  “A decedent often is found to have multiple drugs listed as present; these are drug occurrences and are not equivalent to deaths.”

The five drugs found most frequently in Florida overdoses were alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, cannabinoids and morphine. The medical examiners noted that heroin rapidly metabolizes into morphine, which probably led to a substantial over-reporting of morphine-related deaths, as well as a significant under-reporting of heroin-related deaths.

Benzodiazepines also played a prominent role as the cause of death, finishing second behind cocaine as the drug most likely to kill someone.  Benzodiazepines were responsible for almost twice as many deaths in Florida in 2016 than oxycodone. Like opioids, benzodiazepines can slow respiration and cause someone to stop breathing if they take too many pills.

DRUG CAUSED DEATHS IN FLORIDA (2016)

Source: Florida Medical Examiners Commission

As in other states, deaths caused by cocaine, heroin and illicit fentanyl have soared in Florida in recent years. In just one year, the number of overdose deaths there jumped 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.

"We don't talk about it much now there's the opioid crisis, but cocaine and alcohol are still a huge issue, there are still a lot of deaths due to those things," Florida addiction treatment director Dustin Perry told the Pensacola News Journal.

Florida is not an outlier. Several other states are also using toxicology reports to improve their analysis of drugs involved in overdose deaths and getting similar findings.  In Massachusetts, deaths linked to illicit fentanyl, benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine vastly outnumber deaths involving opioid medication.  Prescription opioids were present in only 16 percent of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts during the second quarter of 2017.

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Although it is becoming clear that many different types of drugs -- opioids and non-opioids -- are fueling the nation’s overdose crisis, politicians, the media and public health officials still insist on calling it an “opioid epidemic” or an “opioid crisis” -- diverting attention and resources away from other drugs that are just as dangerous when abused.  We never hear about a Xanax epidemic or a Valium crisis.

President Trump's opioid commission recognized the need to improve drug overdose data when it released its final report this month.

"The Commission recommends the Federal Government work with the states to develop and implement standardized rigorous drug testing procedures, forensic methods, and use of appropriate toxicology instrumentation in the investigation of drug-related deaths. We do not have sufficiently accurate and systematic data from medical examiners around the country to determine overdose deaths, both in their cause and the actual number of deaths,” the commission found.

Fentanyl Linked to Over Half of Opioid Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that illicit fentanyl – not prescription pain medication -- was involved in over half of the recent opioid overdoses in ten states.

The report underscores the changing nature of the nation’s overdose crisis and how public health officials have been slow to respond to the growing role of fentanyl and other illegal opioids – focusing instead on limiting access to opioid medication.

CDC researchers say fentanyl or its chemical cousins (known as fentanyl analogs) were detected in 2,903 of 5,152 opioid overdoses (56.3%) during the last six months of 2016.

Their report on overdoses in ten states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Ohio, Maine, Missouri, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire) is the first to use toxicological and death scene evidence to characterize opioid overdoses, a method that is far more accurate than other CDC reports that rely on death certificate codes.

source: Centers for disease control and prevention

source: Centers for disease control and prevention

Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Missouri reported the highest percentages of deaths involving fentanyl (60-90%), while New Mexico and Oklahoma had the lowest (15-25%). Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that is legally prescribed to treat severe pain. The vast majority of the deaths, however, involve illicit fentanyl that has flooded the black market in recent years. 

“This analysis of opioid overdose deaths in 10 states participating in the ESOOS (Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance) program found that illicitly manufactured fentanyl is a key factor driving opioid overdose deaths and that fentanyl analogs are increasingly contributing to a complex illicit opioid market with significant public health implications,” the researchers reported.

“Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is now a major driver of opioid overdose deaths in multiple states, with a variety of fentanyl analogs increasingly involved, if not solely implicated, in these deaths. This finding raises concern that in the near future, fentanyl analog overdose deaths might mirror the rapidly rising trajectory of fentanyl overdose deaths that began in 2013 and become a major factor in opioid overdose deaths.”

The CDC recently expanded the ESOOS program to 32 states and the District of Columbia. Additional funding was also provided to improve toxicology testing for a wider range of fentanyl analogs such as carfentanil, which is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

The new CDC report did not detail how many of the overdose deaths involved prescription opioids. A recent report from Massachusetts  estimated that prescription opioids were involved in only about 15% of overdoses in that state, ranking well behind cocaine, benzodiazepines, heroin and fentanyl.

source: massachusetts department of public health

source: massachusetts department of public health

Although opioid prescribing has been in decline for years, public health efforts remain focused on limiting access to pain medication. As PNN has reported, the CDC recently launched a new advertising campaign that focuses exclusively on raising awareness about the risks of prescription opioids, while ignoring the role of fentanyl and heroin in the overdose crisis.

The CDC’s Rx Awareness campaign will initially run in four states -- including Massachusetts and Ohio, two of the states where fentanyl overdoses vastly outnumber those involving pain medication.

Insurer Reports Soaring Rates of Opioid Addiction

By Pat Anson, Editor

The number of Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) customers diagnosed with opioid addiction has soared by nearly 500 percent in recent years, according to a new report that found only about a third of the addicted patients were getting medication assisted treatment.

The Health of America Report analyzed prescription data for over 30 million BCBS customers from 2010 to 2016. The report focused mainly on patients who use legally prescribed painkillers, while virtually ignoring addicts who use heroin, illicit fentanyl and other illegal opioids, who are now the driving force behind the nation’s opioid crisis.

"Opioid use disorder is a complex issue, and there is no single approach to solving it," said Trent Haywood, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which represents 36 independent insurers that provide health coverage to over 100 million Americans.

“Opioid use disorder” is a broad and somewhat misleading term that includes illegal drug addicts, as well as chronic pain patients who take opioids responsibly, and develop a tolerance or dependence on them.

The BCBS report found that patients who filled prescriptions for high doses of opioids had much higher rates of opioid use disorder than those on lower doses. Women aged 45 and older had higher rates of the disorder than men. Women of all ages were also more likely to fill an opioid prescription.

The BCBS report found that patients who filled prescriptions for high doses of opioids had much higher rates of opioid use disorder. Women aged 45 and older had higher rates of the disorder than men. Women of all ages were also more likely to fill an opioid prescription.

Less than one percent of BCBC customers (0.83%) were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in 2016, a rate much higher than in 2010 (0.14%). The rise was attributed to “an increased awareness of the disorder,” suggesting that doctors were simply more likely to diagnose opioid addiction then they were in 2010.    

While the diagnosis of opioid use disorder rose by 493 percent during the study period, there was only a 65 percent increase in the number of BCBS customers who were prescribed addiction treatment drugs such as Suboxone (buprenorphine).

BCBS customers in the South were more likely to be diagnosed with opioid use disorder. Alabama led the nation with a diagnosis rate of over 1.6 percent, twice the national average.

The report noted that New England leads the nation in the use of medication-assisted treatments, even though the region has lower levels of opioid use disorder than other parts of the country. In Massachusetts, 84% of BCBS customers diagnosed with addiction were getting treatment with medication.

That prompted Blue Cross Blue Shield Association of Massachusetts to issue a press release claiming the state was “ahead of the nation when it comes to combating the opioid epidemic.” The insurer was one of the first in the country to take steps to significantly reduce access to opioids by its customers. As a result, only 2% of Blue Cross Blue Shield members in Massachusetts are receiving high doses of opioids, far less than the national average of 8.3 percent.

However, restricting access to pain medication has failed to stop a surge in opioid overdoses in Massachusetts, most of which are now caused by illicit fentanyl.  Over 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts last year, almost three times the number of deaths in 2012, when Blue Cross Blue Shield began restricting access to painkillers.

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Prescription opioids were involved in only 9% of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts at the end of 2016. In addition, the most recent report from the state's prescription drug monitoring program identified only 264 of the 288,519 people receiving Schedule II opioids as having “activity of concern” that could indicate they were misusing the drugs. That minuscule rate of 0.0915% hardly suggests that legitimate pain patients are the source of Massachusetts’s drug problem.

This week the largest health insurer in the Philadelphia area, Independence Blue Cross, announced plans to limit the prescribing of opioids in its network to just five days for acute pain -- making it one of the first insurers in the country to adopt such a strict limit.

Fentanyl Deaths Rise Again in Massachusetts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly three out of four opioid overdoses in Massachusetts have been linked to fentanyl, far outnumbering the number of deaths associated with prescription pain medication, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

Massachusetts was the first state to begin using blood toxicology tests to look specifically for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is more potent and dangerous than heroin. Toxicology tests are far more accurate than the death certificate codes used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to classify opioid-related deaths. 

Over 1,000 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid overdoses were reported in Massachusetts in the first nine months of 2016. During the third quarter (July-September), 74 percent of the deaths where a toxicology screen was available showed a positive result for fentanyl.

Almost all of those deaths are believed to involve illicit fentanyl, not pharmaceutical fentanyl that is prescribed to treat severe pain.

“The data released today are a sobering reminder of why the opioid crisis is so complex and a top public health priority,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. “This is a crisis that touches every corner of our state, and we will continue our urgent focus expanding treatment access.”

Only about 20 percent of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts were associated with prescription opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, a trend that has held fairly steady since 2014, even as the number of opioid prescriptions in the state has declined.

Massachusetts department of public health

Massachusetts department of public health

 "I think this points to the fact that cutting scripts for legitimate pain patients and blaming doctors for overdose deaths is pointing fingers in the wrong direction and harming a lot of innocent people living with debilitating pain while doing nothing to reduce overdose deaths – a critical goal,” said Cindy Steinberg of the U.S. Pain Foundation, a patient advocacy group. “People living with the disease of chronic pain and those living with the disease of substance use disorder are two different populations of people with little overlap.

“If we are committed to doing all we can to stop overdose deaths then the only way we can do that is to really understand what exactly is causing them. The fact that illicit fentanyl is the cause points to the need for increased law enforcement efforts to interdict the supply coming into Massachusetts.”

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, chemicals used to make illicit fentanyl are being smuggled in from China and Mexico. Illicit fentanyl is usually mixed with heroin or cocaine, and it is also appearing in counterfeit pain medication sold on the black market. The drug is so potent that a single pill could be fatal.

Rhode Island is also using blood toxicology tests to help determine the true nature of the opioid epidemic. The most recent data from that state shows that about two out of three opioid overdoses are linked to fentanyl.  Since 2012, overdoses from prescription opioids have fallen by about a third in Rhode Island.

“The shifts in prescription and illicit drug overdose deaths also began roughly when more focused efforts were undertaken nationally to reduce the supply of prescription drugs,” the Rhode Island Department of Health said in a statement.

The CDC uses death certificate codes – not toxicology tests -- in its reports on opioid overdoses. The codes do not indicate the cause of death, only the conditions or drugs that may be present at the time of death. Because of limitations in the data, many overdoses involving illicit fentanyl and heroin are being reported by the CDC as prescription opioid deaths.

Fewer Pain Meds but More Overdoses in Massachusetts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Opioid prescribing fell by 15 percent for members of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts after the insurer adopted policies that discourage the dispensing of opioid pain medication, according to a new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that 21 million fewer opioid doses were dispensed to Blue Cross Blue Shield members from 2012 to 2015. But the new policies failed to slow the growing number of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts, which more than doubled during the same period.

The CDC said it will "take time" before overdoses start to decline.

“Reducing the level of opioid prescribing is a long term strategy to limit exposure to these drugs. Mortality outcomes would not be expected to change for several years after implementation, and impact would be complicated by the increasing supply of illicit opioids,” Courtney Lenard, a CDC spokesperson, said in an email to Pain News Network.  

"Long-term strategies like the one outlined in the report take time to make an impact and therefore no immediate impact can be expected during the first several years of program implementation. Assessing what happened before and after the policy at the mortality level is inappropriate."

Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Massachusetts is the state’s largest insurer, with about 2.8 million members.

In 2012, the insurer adopted policies that discourage opioid prescribing by requiring doctors to develop treatment plans that consider non-opioid therapies; requiring pre-authorization for all opioid prescriptions after an initial 30 day supply; and limiting some pain patients to use of a single pharmacy.

The effect was immediate, with an average monthly decline of 14,000 prescriptions for both short and long-acting opioids.

Although cancer patients were exempt from the policies, there was a 9% decline in opioid prescriptions to BCBS members with a cancer diagnosis. The CDC attributed that to a “sentinel effect” in which doctors implement the same policies for all of their patients regardless of diagnosis.

“I think oncologists were becoming more thoughtful and maybe more vigilant about how much narcotics they were prescribing and I think that’s why we saw that decrease in cancer patients,” said Tony Dodek, MD, associate chief medical director for BCBS of Massachusetts. “We’ve only received one complaint about the program in terms of people having access to necessary pain medications.”

Like the CDC, Dodek said it may take years before the stricter prescribing policies start to have an impact on overdoses. So far the signs are not encouraging.

Opioid overdoses in Massachusetts rose from 698 deaths in 2012 to 1,659 deaths in 2015. The trend has continued in the first six months in 2016, with nearly a thousand opioid overdoses reported. Two-thirds of this year’s deaths were related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is increasingly appearing on the black market. Illicit fentanyl is often combined with heroin and cocaine, or used in the manufacture of counterfeit pain medication.

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

“It’s not surprising to me that overdoses have not gone down because there is still a lot of drugs in circulation,” said Dodek. “What we did was slow the supply of new medication that’s in circulation. The fact is there is already way too much medication sitting in people’s medicine cabinets at home and that is what was available to start this epidemic.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration has said the U.S. is being “inundated” with counterfeit painkillers and there are anecdotal reports of some patients turning to street drugs for pain relief as opioid medication has become harder to get. But Dodek says it is recreational users – not pain patients – who are resorting to the black market.

“Any pain patient isn’t having access problems to getting opioids,” he said. “Those who may be using it for recreational purposes or for diversion probably are having a more difficult time (getting prescriptions). We still need to figure out what to do about illicit drugs, but I think decreasing the amount of prescriptions drugs will only be a good thing in the end.”

And what about the effect on pain patients as these policies are adopted? The CDC report ends with this telling statement:

“Finally, it is not known from these data how patient pain and function were affected by limiting access to opioid prescriptions.”

Fentanyl Blamed for Half of Massachusetts Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

New studies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island show that the nation’s fentanyl problem may be much worse than previously thought, while the abuse of opioid pain medication may not be as bad as it is often portrayed.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health released new data showing that over half of the opioid overdose deaths in the state in 2015 were related to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is more potent and dangerous that heroin.

It was the first time toxicology tests were used to detect the presence of fentanyl, a method that is far more accurate than the death certificate codes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to classify opioid-related deaths. 

“The first-time inclusion of data on fentanyl allows us to have a more honest and transparent analysis of the rising trend of opioid-related deaths that have inundated the Commonwealth in recent years,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders.

Of the 1,319 opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts for which a blood test was available, over 57 percent had a positive result for fentanyl.

The state’s findings do not distinguish between prescription fentanyl that is used to treat more severe forms of chronic pain and illicit fentanyl sold by drug dealers. But it seems likely the vast majority of deaths involve the latter.

illicit fentanyl powder

illicit fentanyl powder

Massachusetts also released new data from its prescription drug monitoring program for the first quarter of 2016, showing that relativity few pain patients prescribed a Schedule II opioid medication had signs of abusing the drugs. Schedule II opioids include hydrocodone products such as Vicodin and Lortab.

Of the nearly 350,000 patients who had an opioid prescription, the state identified only 484 people (or 0.0014%) as “individuals with activity of concern.” The method used to identify possible abuse was someone receiving Schedule II opioid prescriptions from 4 or more providers and having them filled at 4 or more pharmacies during a three month period.   

Rhode Island Overdoses

Rhode Island this week also released a report showing a "significant increase" in fentanyl-related overdoses. Blood tests detected fentanyl in about 60 percent of the state's overdose deaths in the last two and a half months. There have been 28 fentanyl-related overdoses in Rhode Island so far this year.

“People are injecting, swallowing, and snorting this drug without realizing that they are often breathing their last breaths. Unfortunately, fentanyl kills, and it kills quickly,” said Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health.

Deaths linked to prescription opioids have been in decline in Rhode island for several years. The prescribing of Schedule II and Schedule III drugs in the state has fallen by over a third since 2011.

"The shifts in prescription and illicit drug overdose deaths also began roughly when more focused efforts were undertaken nationally to reduce the supply of prescription drugs," the health department said in a statement.

source: rhode island department of health

source: rhode island department of health

‘Alarming’ Rise in Fentanyl Overdoses

In recent years Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other eastern states have seen a surge in the illicit fentanyl drug trade. The white powdered drug is usually mixed with heroin or cocaine to boost their potency, but in recent months counterfeit pain medication made with fentanyl has appeared on both coasts. The “death pills” are blamed for at least 14 deaths in California and 9 in Florida.

COUNTERFEIT NORCO PILLS

COUNTERFEIT NORCO PILLS

“The counterfeit pills are a newer thing that is going on and that is popping up in different places. It’s certainly something we’re keeping an eye on,” said Erin Artigiani, deputy director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) at the University of Maryland.

CESAR tracks emerging trends in illegal drug use through a nationwide network of more than 1,500 researchers and volunteers.

“It’s very alarming. It’s something we’re very concerned about. And it’s something that local researchers and other members of the network are worried about as well,” Artigiani said.

The appearance of fake pain medication  came just as the CDC finalized guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Artigiani stopped short of saying there’s a connection, but admits some pain patients may be seeking opioids on the streets.

“There are people that are looking for other sources or maybe got cutoff by their doctor or maybe their doctor had second thoughts about prescribing pain medications for one reason or another,” said Artigiani. “The people making and selling these illegal drugs are meeting market demand. So if there’s an increase in people looking for pills, then they’re going to make something to sell to those people.”

‘Biased’ CDC Reports

Pain News Network asked to interview someone at CDC about the Massachusetts fentanyl deaths and was told no one would be available.

“We aren’t able to provide comment on non-CDC research,” a spokesperson said in an email. “At CDC we don’t publish state drug overdose death rates for Rx opioids (or for any specific drug type) due to variability in states reporting drugs involved with deaths.”

While CDC may not consider the state data all that reliable, it has not hesitated to use reports from local medical examiners and death certificates in its reports on opioid overdose deaths.

The agency’s most recent report on 2014 overdoses said the U.S. was experiencing an “epidemic of drug overdose” that it blamed largely on prescription opioids.

“Natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include the most commonly prescribed opioid pain relievers, oxycodone and hydrocodone, continue to be involved in more overdose deaths than any other opioid type,” the report states.

Only briefly does the report acknowledge the “emerging and troubling” number of deaths related to illicit fentanyl. Like Massachusetts, CDC cannot distinguish between illicit fentanyl and prescription fentanyl, an important point because all fentanyl related overdoses are classified by the agency as prescription opioid deaths.

The CDC also admits some opioid-related deaths may be counted twice in its reports and some heroin-related deaths may have been misclassified as prescription opioid overdoses.

“We already know that the CDC's info is biased. Not because they are bad people, but because of the way that data is reported to them. Garbage in, garbage out,” says Terri Lewis, PhD, a rehabilitation specialist, medical researcher and patient advocate.

“There is so much variability in the collection of data at the state level, along with the fact that data collection and reporting is voluntary, not mandatory, that one simply cannot rely on the data set. Of course they won't tell you that.” 

The CDC uses data on death certificates known as International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes, which do not determine the cause of death, only the conditions that exist at the time of death. Someone could die from lung cancer, for example, but because they were on opioids to relieve cancer pain, an ICD code box for opioids may be checked by a doctor or coroner. Autopsies and toxicology tests are not usually conducted to verify ICD coding.

The largest part of the problem of reported death certificates is that of variability – local jurisdictions have wide variation in the preparation of individuals who complete these reports, and few are actually physicians or medical examiners. Often local coroners are appointed or elected,” said Lewis. “Until every state is doing exactly the same thing, we have muddy statistics. 

“Massachusetts has enacted one of the most sweeping changes to their reporting systems in the country – for that they are to be commended.  Distinguishing drugs by the manner of their death is important information for policy managers.” 

Until other states and CDC follow Massachusetts’ lead, we may never know the extent of the fentanyl problem. The CDC’s reliance on ICD codes not only distorts the true nature of the nation’s drug problem, but can lead to the misallocation of resources aimed at combating it.. 

The Obama administration recently asked Congress for an additional $1.1 billion to fight opioid abuse. Most of the money is earmarked for addiction treatment for prescription opioids, not for getting fentanyl off the streets.