Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Long Wait for W.Va. Addicts to Get Help

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Long Wait for W.Va. Addicts to Get Help

Article excerpt

At the largest opioid addiction clinic in overdose-ravaged West Virginia, just getting in the door can take more than a year.

That won't be fast enough for some addicts on the waiting list, which topped 530 names this spring.

"Most of them will never get into treatment here. Some of them, I guarantee you, will die of an overdose before they ever get into treatment," said Carl R. Sullivan, who oversees the Comprehensive Opioid Addiction Treatment Clinic at WVU Medicine in Morgantown. "We wouldn't put up with this with any other disease."

The national epidemic of narcotic overuse struck early and hard in West Virginia, helped by a dire economy, geographic isolation and chronic ailments among the blue-collar workforce. By the early 2000s, up to 90 percent of opioid addicts there were getting hooked through excessive prescriptions written by clinicians, Dr. Sullivan estimated.

But even as doctors cut back on the painkillers, he projected about a quarter of the state's narcotic problem still arises from bloated prescriptions, a figure disputed by physician associations. Disciplinary boards in West Virginia punished at least two dozen doctors from 2011 to 2015 for misprescribing narcotics, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis found.

Those sanctions reached nearly five of every 1,000 doctors practicing in the state, the third-highest rate of discipline among seven states in the newspaper's six-month opioid investigation. Pennsylvania ranked seventh, with fewer than two in 1,000 doctors sanctioned for overprescribing.

"I wouldn't put the blame squarely on the doctors, but there are people who started out just with a back injury who became addicted to pills. When those dried up, they moved to heroin," said Scott Lemley, a criminal intelligence analyst for city police in Huntington, W.Va.

He said the community of about 49,000 counted 58 drug overdose deaths last year, the vast majority connected to opioids. That's nearly nine times the national average of 13 overdose deaths per 100,000 people.

West Virginia overall saw more than double the national average in 2014, notching the highest overdose death rate in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 610 people statewide died from opioid-related overdoses last year, including 196 that involved heroin.

That's up from 412 in 2007, including 22 linked to heroin, state data show.

"Everybody knows somebody who has died or is suffering from addiction," Mr. Lemley said. "Twenty years ago, when you'd say someone is a drug addict, you had a picture in your mind of what that person looked like. Today it's everyone."

A prescription dip

While heroin keeps increasing the death rates, state health officials see hope in falling prescription numbers.

As recently as 2012, West Virginia medical providers wrote about 138 opioid pain-reliever prescriptions for every 100 people, the third-highest rate nationwide, according to IMS Health. The figure tumbled to around 110 prescriptions last year, marking one of the sharpest declines in the country, said state health commissioner Rahul Gupta.

"There's a relearning of the system. It's a paradigm shift," Dr. Gupta said.

In particular, he said, West Virginia has begun requiring doctors to undergo routine training on opioids. A toughened prescription-drug monitoring program demands often that physicians check on a patient's prescription history before offering a narcotic. A state advisory panel alerts investigators to doctors linked to multiple overdose deaths.

Another factor: Expanded availability of naloxone, the emergency overdose treatment, has pushed physicians to think more about responsible prescribing in the first place, Dr. Gupta said. State health authorities also are telling the most frequent opioid prescribers about their high ranking. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.