Last year in Allen County, 29 people died of drug overdoses, and 25 of those deaths involved prescription drugs.
That was one of the statistics given by Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner, during Tuesday’s launch of a public awareness campaign headed up by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller.
The new Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force organized by Zoeller’s office hopes to combat what is now the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem – prescription drug abuse.
A new billboard on U.S. 30 is part of the project and proclaims another startling fact: “Every 25 minutes, someone dies from RX drug overdose.”
“In 2009 and 2010, 1,350 Hoosiers died from drug overdoses,” Zoeller said. “In the state and in the nation, this is a real epidemic.”
The epidemic has been driven by increased use of antidepressants and pain killers.
The task force met for the first time last month and plans to make recommendations for new rules, regulations and state statutes regarding prescription medications, Zoeller said.
“This is a wake-up call to all of Indiana,” Zoeller said.
The group is made up of state legislators, law enforcement, health officials, pharmaceutical representatives, state and local agencies and local educators, he said. Five subcommittees will focus on education and public awareness, treatment and recovery, prescription drug monitoring, disposal and enforcement.
Through stricter state statues, Zoeller said he hopes to crack down on pain medication clinics known as “pill mills” where prescriptions are doled out indiscriminately.
McMahan, a member of the task force, thanked Zoeller for initiating the campaign, noting that Allen County is not immune.
McMahan described parties known as “Skittles or pharming parties” where teens take whatever prescription medications they can find at home, mix all the pills together and then eat a handful at a time.
“There are multiple complications of prescription drug abuse, including overdoses, addiction and dependence, social and family dysfunction, criminal consequences and heightened HIV and hepatitis C risks,” McMahan said.
Pat Weicker, director of administrative services at Orthopedics Northeast, works closely with local medical professionals to promote responsible prescribing of narcotics, and sits on two committees for the Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force. Those committees will develop a protocol for primary care physicians and pain physicians for assessing pain.
“We are interested in developing best practices, seeing what other doctors’ practices are doing and then combining those tools to create a better system of prescribing narcotics,” Weicker said.
It’s important that practices that have a high population of pain patients get a clear diagnosis, assess the pain and understand clearly what the problem is before prescribing pain medication, she said.
“Sometimes there are other modalities to consider, including physical therapy, magnetic resonance imaging or injections,” Weicker said.
There’s no doubt that assessing the patient is key to curbing the problem, McMahan said. “We want to make sure people are pain free, but we need to control that pain without hurting others.
“Of 500 patients who are screened and assessed properly before given pain medication, only one will become addicted,” McMahon said. “But of those not screened, one in 30 will become addicted.
“That is astounding.”