It’s not good news, but there’s one tiny nugget of not-so-horrible news buried in a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the nation’s ongoing epidemic of heroin and prescription opioid abuse.
From 1999 to 2014, the CDC reports, deaths from drug overdoses tripled in the United States, spurred by a spike in heroin and prescription opioid abuse.
In 2015, the problem continued to get worse. More than 33,000 people died from heroin or opioid-based pain medication overdoses in 2015. And deaths from synthetic opioids, such as the powerful painkiller fentanyl, rose by a whopping 72 percent. In Missouri, deaths caused by similar overdoses were up 63 percent.
That’s the bad news.
In Missouri, which has been ahead of the national curve in terms of how bad the opioid crisis has become, 237 people died in 2015 from heroin overdoses or those from semi-synthetic opioid drugs such as OxyContin. The sliver of hope in that statistic lies in that it’s the same number of people who died in Missouri from those causes the previous year. Unlike most of the rest of the nation, Missouri’s traditional opioid problem didn’t grow worse in 2015.
It’s not for a lack of trying.
Missouri remains the only state in the nation without a prescription drug monitoring program, which is one of the key strategies the CDC recommends in battling the persistent and growing opioid epidemic. A monitoring program has long been blocked by Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.
This year, Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, hopes that changes.
She believes a local effort to establish a drug monitoring database in St. Louis County that has since spread across the region, and even to Kansas City, might change the politics of enacting a proposal the CDC calls “urgently needed” as part of multiple strategies combating a growing national problem.
“By the time the session starts, we will have almost half of the Missouri population in a county that has passed a local ordinance,” Rehder says. “The counties having to shoulder this actually makes more government oversight than a statewide program would require. So for those legislators that say privacy is their concern, I’m hopeful they will feel a statewide program is the most responsible action.”
When she talks about opioid abuse, Rehder comes from a place of knowledge.
Like a growing number of Americans, she has seen in her own family how damaging opioid addiction can be, tearing apart lives, dividing families and devastating relationships.
It often starts from the most unexpected of places, a simple prescription for pain pills after a back injury or a cancer scare. Then the number of pills grows and grows. The need for more powerful opioids knows no bounds.
This week, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia added to the national base of knowledge about how the epidemic came to be, publishing a powerful investigative piece showing that even as 1,728 West Virginians were dying from overdoses to oxycodone and hydrocodone pills over a six-year period, the nation’s drug companies were shipping 780 million pills to pharmacies in the state. Even after the state’s attorney general was warned by the Drug Enforcement Agency of abnormally large shipments to small pharmacies in out-of-the way places, the drugs kept coming, and the bodies piled up.
The drug companies blame the doctors. The doctors blame the patients.
And in Missouri, state lawmakers wash their hands of responsibility.
Maybe 2017 will be the year the tide turns.
Earlier this year, in a courtroom in downtown St. Louis, that was roughly the appeal attorney Tim Cronin used before a jury deciding an opioid-abuse case.
“Send a message from coast to coast that this isn’t going to happen anymore,” Cronin asked jurors before they awarded his clients, Brian and Michelle Koon, a record $17.6 million verdict.
From 2008 to 2012, Brian Koon had been prescribed more than 37,000 opioid-based pain pills. His addiction destroyed his marriage and changed his life forever, but unlike thousands of others who ended up in a position similar to his — from Missouri to West Virginia — Koon beat his addiction and lives.
The CDC says that to save more lives, states battling opioid abuse need to strengthen drug monitoring, promote clean syringe exchange programs, improve on medical practices that overprescribe pain pills, and focus on improving treatment options for the growing number of addicts in our midst.
“The ongoing epidemic of opioid deaths requires intense attention,” wrote CDC researchers.
It’s a national call to action.