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.
“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 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.