HARRISBURG – Opioid prescriptions have dropped 25 percent statewide since Pennsylvania rolled out a monitoring database, a Department of Health spokeswoman said Thursday.
The drop in opioid prescriptions has been even more pronounced in some rural Pennsylvania counties, according to state data.
Since the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program began, “doctor shopping, visiting more than one doctor for an opioid prescription, has been virtually eliminated,” said April Hutcheson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health.
According to state data, the number of prescriptions issued by pharmacies in 10 of 11 counties covered by CNHI newspapers in Pennsylvania saw decreases steeper than the statewide 25 percent drop.
The steepest percentage drops were in Mercer, Lawrence and Somerset counties, which all saw 30 percent fewer opioid prescriptions dispensed in the fourth quarter of 2018 than in the same period of 2016, according to Health Department data.
Mercer County Coroner John Libonati said his office doesn’t track prescriptions, but he thinks the Health Department’s data accurately reflects the reality in Mercer County.
“I would say that based on experience and being in the arena,” he said.
Libonati said health care providers and groups are prescribing fewer opioids.
“It’s not just individual practitioners,” he said. “Primary Health and other community providers are really guided to prescribe less opioids.”
Crawford, Northumberland and Venango counties saw their opioid prescriptions drop 29 percent over the same period. Cambria, Montour and Union counties had 27 percent drops, and Snyder County saw its opioid prescriptions decrease 25 percent. Only Warren County, which saw its opioid prescriptions decline 20 percent, had a decrease less than the state average, according to the Health Department data.
Health officials in Pennsylvania and nationwide have pointed to opioid prescription abuse as a key factor in the overdose epidemic that peaked in Pennsylvania in 2017 when 5,456 people died, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The death toll slowed in 2018, but overdoses still claimed the lives of 4,492 people in Pennsylvania, according to the DEA.
A judge in Oklahoma on Monday ordered the drug company Johnson & Johnson to pay that state $572.1 million for using misleading marketing to encourage doctors to prescribe and patients to take opioids.
Usage of Pennsylvania’s PDMP spiked from 2.3 million queries in 2016 to 12.7 million queries in 2017. It rose to more than 17 million in 2018.
The American Medical Association in June noted that since 2013, Pennsylvania has had the fifth steepest drop in opioid prescribing , lagging behind only West Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Ohio.
Like, the Health Department, the Pennsylvania Medical Society points to the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has been a key in combatting efforts to get doctors to over-prescribe painkillers.
“The use of the PDMP has basically stopped doctor shopping and allowed physicians to identify more easily those patients who may have substance use disorder,” said Jeff Wirick, a medical society spokesman.
Other factors include increased awareness about opioid abuse by both doctors and patients, and voluntary prescribing guidelines, Wirick said.
In Mercer County, Libonati said the effort to decrease prescribed opioids is an important step in addressing opioid overdose issues. But his review of the opioid epidemic indicates that prescription drugs aren’t the key culprit.
“The majority of what we’re seeing is people who experimented recreationally,” he said.
The Herald staff contributed to this story.
CNHI News Service