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Pennsylvania Has 14th Highest Rate of Drug Overdose Deaths, Study Shows

A new study released Monday shows Pennsylvania has the 14th highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation.

Albert Lang, communications manager at the Trust for America’s Health, said this is the first time the organization has aggregated such data.

They were motivated to do so after compiling related data on accident and injury deaths, which includes drug overdoses.

“Coming out of those reports, we realized that drug overdose was quickly becoming one of the biggest public health problems, passing motor vehicle injuries as causes of death in the nation,” Lang said.

Each year, Pennsylvania has about 15.3 deaths per 100,000 residents. That’s an 89 percent increase since the last time this data was collected in 1999.

Lang said the increase in deaths from prescription painkillers amounts for the biggest chunk of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania. That’s not surprising, considering the prevalence of prescription painkillers is on the rise.

“According to the CDC, sales of prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999," Lang said. "Correspondingly, the number of fatal poisonings due to prescription painkillers has also quadrupled. Doctors, rightly so, probably don’t want their patients to suffer, and tend to over-prescribe sometimes when it comes to painkillers.”

People generally don’t use all of the painkillers prescribed to them, and that’s when they fall into the hands of people who may abuse them.

Lang said one of the most effective ways to curb prescription drug abuse is to simply get rid of them.

“We’ve seen that a lot of people accessing the drugs are getting them from family members,” said Lang. “If they throw away the drugs that they don’t need, there’s obviously no temptation, no ability for someone to use those drugs.”

Many states also have implemented prescription drug monitoring programs, which are databases that track which doctors are prescribing which drugs, and to whom.

Pennsylvania has a monitoring system, but doctors are not required to use it.

“So, they may not know that the person they’re prescribing a painkiller to has gone to three other doctors recently and actually gotten the same prescription,” Lang said.

A bill that would have beefed up the state’s monitoring system languished in the General Assembly earlier this year and was eventually struck down amid privacy concerns.

Lang said there is a way to increase monitoring of prescription drugs while still respecting a patient’s right to privacy.

“Privacy is certainly important, but if the right people have (access to the system), and it’s triggered at the right time by certain risk factors, such as people we know that have had a lot of prescriptions in the past, it can be used in a way that really only affects those who are abusing the system,” Lang said.