New Report Finds Texas Grossly Undercounting Prescription Drug Deaths

By McCarton Ackerman 04/28/15

A joint investigation found that the state failed to report deaths caused by certain kinds of drugs.

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Texas reported having 275 prescription drug-related deaths throughout the state in 2013, but a new report has found that officials have widely undercounted these deaths.

A joint investigation conducted by the Houston Chronicle and the Austin-American Statesman found that the Texas Department of Health Services didn’t count overdose deaths for all prescription drugs, but rather just certain painkillers. Deaths involving multiple medications or prescription drugs mixed with other substances were often not reported as well. The data also failed to include information from medical examiners who identified far more overdoses with their drug screenings.

The state’s health services department only accounted for 622 deaths on prescription opioids. However, the investigators used records from local medical examiners to tally up 798 prescription drug-related deaths in just 17 of the state’s 254 counties. The medical examiner’s office reported 275 deaths for all prescription drug deaths in 2013, but Harris County tallied 179 deaths from painkillers alone that year, while Travis County recorded 114 deaths from all prescription drugs in 2013.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the health services department, said that there is no death certificate code that covers all prescription drug overdoses. She also denied that the department intentionally low-balled numbers, stating that “we are in public health and we have no reason to undercount the problem.”

Unfortunately, this issue is hardly limited to Texas. Bob Anderson, chief of mortality statistics for the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the federal government simply has no way to collect all the data from 2,300 medical examiners and coroners from across the country.

"It's clear we're missing a lot of prescription drug deaths," said Anderson. "It's important to communicate that we need the specificity, we need the detail. If we can't adequately identify which drugs caused the death, we don't know where to focus prevention efforts."

Last January, Texas lawmakers attempted to address the growing number of drug deaths throughout the state by proposing a new bill restricting patients who “doctor shop” for prescription medications. It would require doctors to use prescription drug monitoring databases that track patients who make appointments with multiple physicians.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.