Amount of prescribed opioids decrease in area

Fulton, Huntingdon counties see increase in painkiller usage

The amount of opioids prescribed fell in three area counties between 2010 and 2015 and increased in two others, figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

In terms of total painkilling power per person, pharmacies in Cambria County cut prescriptions by 30 percent between 2010 and 2015, while Blair County saw a 25 percent drop. Centre County fell nearly 23 percent.

But the opposite was true in some other counties.

Huntingdon County saw a nearly 32 percent increase, and Fulton County reported a 92 percent gain, CDC figures show.

There was little change in Bedford, Somerset, Indiana and Clearfield counties.

Despite their drop, Blair and Cambria counties remain far atop the list of local counties in the amount of opioids prescribed, a position that possibly derives from both counties hosting several regional hospitals.

But other factors influence the prevalence of opioid painkillers in the region, Conemaugh Health System Communications and Marketing Director Amy Bradley said, citing Dr. Daniel Wehner, chairman of the hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

In Appalachian counties, high unemployment and relative poverty can make opioid use and addiction more common.

“People who don’t work have more time to reflect upon painful conditions and to seek medical attention for same. People who are not active tend to have difficulty improving pain,” Bradley said in an email, citing Wehner. “People who are unemployed can take large amounts of opioids without worrying about it affecting job performance.”

High Medicare and Medicaid enrollment — common in areas with lower income and older populations — means a larger share of the population is able to get prescriptions, sometimes leading to more opioid painkiller use, she said.

Because opioids come in different strengths, researchers came up with a standard measure to account for all kinds of opioids by comparing them to morphine, one of the oldest opioids that’s not as powerful as some of the painkillers prescribed today.

Overall, the amount of opioids prescribed nationally peaked at the equivalent of 782 milligrams of morphine per person in 2010 and fell to 640 in 2015. That’s an improvement, but it’s still three times higher than it was in 1999, according to Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting CDC director.

In 2015, Blair County pharmacies distributed 1,081 morphine milligram equivalents for each county resident, down from 1,459 MMEs in 2010.

Cambria County distributed 1,409 MMEs per person in 2015, down from 2,026 in 2010.

While rural Fulton County saw a huge percentage jump over the five-year period, the per person amounts are small — 58 MMEs in 2010 and 112 MMEs in 2015 — compared to Blair and Cambria counties.

Some hospitals have set new policies as opioid abuse death rates have skyrocketed in recent years, seeking to stop a common track: prescription use has led to the illegal use of heroin.

“We have had a very successful opioid management policy in our Department of Emergency Medicine, encouraging responsible opioid use and prescribing. Well below 5 percent of our (emergency) patients are discharged with a prescription for opioids, the national average being about 15 percent,” Bradley said.

The amount of opioids prescribed fell 18 percent between 2010 and 2015 nationwide. But researchers found local differences, with opioid prescribing six times higher in some counties than others.

Rates vary “as much from place to place as the weather,” Schuchat said.

Prescription opioids are behind the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history. More than 52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015 — an all-time record — and experts believe the numbers have continued to rise.

To battle the spread of opioid use, state officials have established a detailed database, used by doctors and pharmacies, to track opioid use and avoid overprescription. A 2014 state law expanded the list of drugs covered by the database, and new rules tightened reporting this year.

Under the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, Pennsylvania doctors consult the database to look for patterns of misuse or abuse when prescribing to patients. Pharmacists and so-called dispensers are required to consult the database under certain circumstances, as well.

The state program now shares data with 10 other states and the District of Columbia, state officials announced June 29.

“This interstate sharing of patient data helps providers get a more complete picture of their patients’ controlled substance prescription histories, regardless of which state they filled their prescription in,” Department of Health Secretary Karen Murphy said in a news release announcing the cooperation.

The CDC report demonstrated the patchwork of responses in different counties across the country, with many reducing prescription rates since the opioid crisis worsened. Many Pennsylvania counties, including Clearfield and Bedford, remained relatively stable over the five-year period while some, including Huntingdon County, saw rates increase.

Regardless of cuts in recent years, the CDC researchers noted that average prescription rates have skyrocketed since the 1990s, meaning there is a great deal of work still to be done.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457. The Associated Press contributed to this story.