Opioid Prescriptions Down Yet Overdose Deaths Still Rose In West Virginia

By Beth Leipholtz 01/24/18

West Virginia sees the highest rates of overdose deaths per capita in the United States.

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Despite a significant decrease in the amount of prescription painkillers distributed throughout West Virginia, the state is still facing an increasing number of fatal overdoses due to illegal opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil, according to a new report.

According to CNBC, West Virginia is the leading state in the U.S. when it comes to overdose deaths per capita. 

The new numbers came to light after the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy's annual report was published. The report states, “The 884 drug overdose deaths reported in 2016 was a record high for the state, but 2017 numbers are on pace to surpass that total.” According to the report, in 2017, the number of doses of prescribed controlled substances decreased by 31.3 million, or 12%, in comparison to the prior year. 

Specifically, the report states that hydrocodone, sold under names such as Vicodin and Lortab, was still the most commonly prescribed pain medication, but the number of pills prescribed decreased by 8.4 million tablets, while oxycodone decreased by 9.3 million.

The population of West Virginia is 1.8 million, meaning the doses of controlled substances prescribed in the state last year—236 million—amounted to 65 doses for every person. 

Michael Goff, acting executive director of the pharmacy board, told CNBC that the decrease in the number of prescriptions in 2017 has to do with the increase in awareness around the dangers of prescription opioids. "There's a lot of articles dealing with, doctors and pharmacies are concerned, there's lawsuits everywhere," he said. 

According to Goff, the state pharmacy board has sent out hundreds of letters to pharmacies and health providers. The letters are sent when a patient who has been prescribed or dispensed drugs by those places fatally overdoses. 

Goff says the board is also made aware when a person sees eight or more doctors and visits five different pharmacies within a six-month period. Letters are also sent in these cases. 

At the same time the report was released, West Virginia lawmakers have been working to come up with legislation that further controls the quantity of prescriptions painkillers that can be prescribed by doctors. 

A proposed bill, known as Senate Bill 2, would limit doctors to prescribe no more than a seven-day supply for short-term pain management, with the exception of cancer and hospice patients. 

If passed, West Virginia would join the ranks of more than 20 other states that have established limits for the quantity of opioid prescriptions for acute pain.

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.