Which City Has The Highest Rate of Opioid Prescriptions?

By Paul Gaita 07/14/17

Since last year, the southern city has also experienced a 40% increase in emergency room admissions due to opioid overdoses. 

man examining prescription medications.

Residents of the city of Martinsville, Virginia, have been prescribed more opioid medications per person than any other population in the United States. Those are among the findings in a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on July 7, which measured changes in opioid prescription in the U.S. between 2006 and 2015.

Though nationwide prescribing rates had dropped during that period, the amount of opioids per dose—which are measured in morphine milligram equivalents (MME)—was approximately three times higher in 2015 than average rates in 1999, which peaked at 180 MME, and varied substantially among jurisdictions across the country.

In Martinsville, prescriptions were measured at more than 4,000 MME per year—higher than any other town or county for which data was available. The city, which has seen a 40% increase in emergency room admissions due to opioid overdoses since 2016, has formed a task force to provide information to residents about opioids, while police are working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to monitor prescriptions by local doctors.

The study reviewed data on opioid prescriptions culled from approximately 59,000 pharmacies, which issued 88% of prescriptions in the United States. Data was measured by overall opioid prescription rates, high-dose prescription (those with a daily dosage of 90 MME or less) rates, and prescribing rates by days' supply. Analysis of the data revealed that while prescription rates dropped during the period covered in the study—from 81.2 prescriptions per 100 persons between 2006 and 2010 to 70.6 per 100 persons from 2012 to 2015—and the amount of opioids decreased from 782 to 640 MME between 2010 to 2015, that number remained high relative to 1999 levels, and varied substantially in different areas of the country, from an average of 203 MME per capita to 1,319 MME.

Ten jurisdictions were ranked as prescribing the highest MME per capita, with Martinsville topping the list at 4,086.9 MME. Two other Virginia jurisdictions— Norton City and Galax—ranked second and fourth, respectively, while jurisdictions in Tennessee accounted for four separate slots on the CDC list.

Response to the ranking earned dismay, if not surprise, from officials in Martinsville. "That was an alarming number," said Sergeant Ben Peters of the Martinsville Police Department, who noted that in two recent round-ups, 53 warrants were issued for the sale or abuse of opioids, with 22 individuals listed in those indictments. "We're just seeing a lot more prescription medications being abused on the streets," he said. 

Peters is hoping that a task force organized earlier this year will provide some means of taking Martinsville out of the CDC's top spot. "Every Saturday, for approximately three hours, we go out through different neighborhoods in the city and pass out information on opioid abuse," he said. His department has also organized events to take back unused prescriptions, which have so far netted 118 pounds of medication. "Just getting those prescriptions off the street lowers the potential for abuse," he noted.

Martinsville also has one officer that works directly with the DEA to monitor opioid prescription rates among doctors in the city. For Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC, working with medical professionals may be an effective defense in the fight against opioid overuse.

"Healthcare providers have an important role in offering safer and more effective pain management while reducing risks of opioid addiction and overdose," she said. But even with these new strategies, opioids remain all too easy to obtain in the United States. "The amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. is still too high, with too many opioid prescriptions for too many days at too high a dosage," stated Schuchat.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.