Utah works to reverse opioid overdose trends

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The Utah Department of Health reports that 23 people die each month in Utah because of prescription overdoses. This is more than die from car crashes. (Graphic by Alyssa Nielsen)

Mindy Vincent lost her sister to an opioid overdose.

“My sister was prescribed pain medication for many, many years, probably 15 years,” Vincent said. “She never looked like she had an addiction, but it ended up killing her.”

Vincent’s sister is not the only member of Vincent’s family to battle opioid addictions. Vincent labors professionally and voluntarily to reduce the opioid overdose problem in Utah. Hear more about her story in the podcast at the end of this article.

More people die in Utah from prescription drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes, according to the Utah Department of Health.

In a single month, an average of 23 people will die in Utah from overdosing on prescription medications.

“We continue to see these deaths rise. It’s important right now for a paradigm shift,” said Angela Stander, the Utah Department of Health’s prescription drug overdose prevention coordinator.

Prescription drug overdoses are only one part of the issue. The Department of Health reports 10 Utah residents die each week from opioid overdoses, which include opioid prescription overdoses and overdoses on nonprescription opioids.

Utah legislator Representative Ray Ward said nonprescription opioid addicts usually started their addiction with prescription opioids.

“When you talk to the people who are on heroin, very few of them started on heroin,” Ward said. “It started for most of them with a prescription.”

Eighty percent of heroin users were first addicted to opioid prescription drugs, according to Opidemic.org, a Utah Department of Health site.

Since 1999 opioid prescriptions in the U.S. have quadrupled and so has the number of opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Ward, a doctor himself, remembers the shift. Ward said pharmaceutical companies advertised new opioids as safe and nonaddicting, and there were government requirements for doctors to reduce patients’ pain.

“I lived through it as a doctor,” Ward said. “Doctors came to believe because of advertisements from pharmaceutical companies that these opioids were safe, and it turns out they’re not safe, and that they were effective for long term pain, which is also not true.”

The CDC reported 33,091 opioid-related deaths in the U.S. during 2015, and it reports “opioids — prescription and illicit — are the main driver of drug overdose deaths.”

“This isn’t just a Utah problem. It’s a national problem,” Ward said. “It’s in every state to one degree or another. It’s the people who die. It’s the people who are addicted. It’s the people who lose their jobs. It’s a whole long list of horrible things that happens to people that all start — almost all of them — from a prescription.”

Utah ranks seventh from 2013 to 2015 in the nation for its rate of drug overdose deaths. In 2015, 656 people died in Utah from drug overdoses, according to the CDC.

Many Utahns have made efforts to reduce the number of these preventable deaths. Efforts include legislation, awareness campaigns and organization initiatives.

Ward introduced two new bills — H.B. 50 and H.B. 90 — about opioid medications to the Utah legislature this year. The legislature passed both bills. H.B. 50 was signed by the gov. on March 22 of this year, and H.B 90 is pending signature by gov. Gary Herbert.

H.B. 50  reduces “the number of days for which an opiate can be prescribed for certain individuals.” It would not, Ward said, limit the length of all opioid prescriptions.

“It affects the number of days if it is an acute prescription, meaning it is a prescription meant for short-term use,” Ward said. “If it is an acute prescription and we only mean for it to be short-term use, you can only fill it seven days at a time.”

H.B. 90 allows insurers “to implement policies to minimize the risk of prescribing certain controlled substances.” This is not a mandate, but gives insurers flexibility to adopt such policies and asks them to report the policies to the Utah Insurance Department.

“If a doctor gives a really risky prescription, one thing an insurance company could do is send them a letter saying ‘Hey, we noticed you sent out this high-risk prescription. Did you know that’s not recommended according to the CDC guidelines?'” Ward said. “I do hope the insurance companies will think about what policies they might enact to reduce risky prescriptions.”

Ward said he proposed these two bills because he has seen the damage opioids can afflict on people’s lives, including ending lives.

“I see people in my clinic every day whose lives have just been wrecked by opioids — people who lost custody of their kids, people who have been thrown in jail, people whose family members have died, people who have worse pain because they’re on the opioids,” Ward said.

The Utah Department of Health launched its “Opidemic” campaign at the end of January. This campaign includes billboards, commercials, brochures and a website.

The goal of the campaign is to better educate people in Utah about the dangers of opioids, to give people battling opioid addictions a voice and to let them know they’re not alone, Stander said.

“A big part of our campaign is stories,” Stander said. “You’re not alone.”

Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, founded by Vincent, is also working to save lives at risk from opioid overdoses.

“We are a provider of harm reduction services, education and advocacy throughout the state of Utah,” Vincent said. “We also run the first legal syringe exchange in Utah, and we are expanding every month.”

The Drug Policy Project of Utah is also involved in overdose prevention.

One of their priorities is overdose prevention. The organization, according to their board director Turner Bitton, is currently working to create a pharmacy take-back program for people to return extra prescription medication to pharmacies for safe disposal.

“One of the biggest issues in the prescription drug overdose epidemic is the availability of prescription drugs,” Bitton said.

Ward said reducing the number of opioid overdose deaths is related to how people view opioids.

“As a population as a whole, we need to understand just because a doctor writes a prescription, doesn’t make them safe,” Ward said. “When all of us treat them as risky and are careful how we use them and understand how addicting they are, we can slowly get things better.”

Listen to this podcast about the Drug Policy Project’s advocation for medical cannabis, a potential replacement for some opioid prescriptions: 

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