Government Hospitals Put Native Americans At Higher Risk For Opioid Abuse 

By Kelly Burch 07/25/19

Native Americans had the second-highest overdose rate of any racial group in 2017.

doctor at government hospital treating a Native American

Government-run hospitals serving Native Americans put their patients at higher risk for opioid abuse and overdose by not following federal protocols meant to reduce harm from opioids, according to an audit released this week. 

The audit reviewed five of the 25 hospitals run by the Indian Health Service, according to The Associated Press. It found that in all those facilities, patients were given opioids in amounts that exceeded federal guidelines. Taking opioids in these amounts can increase risk for dependence and overdose.  

High Overdose Rates

“There are vulnerabilities with this particular population in the opioid prescribing and dispensing practices,” auditor Carla Lewis said.

Native Americans had the second-highest overdose rate of any racial group in 2017, the AP reported. Many Native Americans receive their health care at facilities run by the Indian Health Service, which provides care to 2.6 million people each year. 

“[Indian Health Service] has recognized the opioid epidemic facing the [Native American] communities, and over the past 2 years, it has battled the epidemic in numerous ways,” the auditors' report said. 

The report showed that the agency has released many guidelines and protocols meant to reduce opioid abuse among Native Americans. However, the hospitals that were audited were not following these policies.  

In addition to prescribing too many opioids, the hospitals failed to have patients undergo urine screenings meant to determine whether they were using illicit drugs in addition to opioids. The hospitals also failed to properly review patients' prescription histories. 

“We also found that these IHS hospitals did not fully use the States’ prescription drug monitoring programs when prescribing or dispensing opioids,” the auditors wrote. 

Dangerous Combos

In addition, the hospitals had many patients prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines, a dangerous combination that increases the likelihood of a fatal overdose. 

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, said that the report was “deeply troubling.” Udall is the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

“Structural issues at the IHS are potentially worsening the opioid crisis in Indian Country,” he said. 

The report suggested that disorganization was to blame in part for the overprescribing. In one instance, an auditor found that opioids were kept in a safe in the hospital, but the combination to access the safe was written right on it. 

The auditors suggested that the Indian Health Service update and upgrade its IT systems to better manage patient information, including information about prescription histories. It also suggested that the Indian Health Service monitor hospitals closely to ensure that existing policies are being followed. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.