The recent death of the musician Prince highlights a national problem with opioid overdoses, which on average kill 78 Americans per day.
“We know that we have people dying from this,” Dr. Patrick Luedtke with Lane County Public Health said. “We know that we have car accidents being caused by excess use of opiates.”
Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and a host of other prescription drugs are at the center of this crisis. The category of drugs also includes heroin, a street drug that some addicts turn to when they can no longer access or afford prescription opioids.
Since 1999, the number of prescriptions sold for has quadrupled.
So has the number of people who have died from using them.
“We have too many people addicted to them, and we’re seeing the responses that happen when you have too many people using the opiates,” Luedtke said.
And the problem may be especially acute in Oregon.
More than 6.5 percent of all prescriptions written in Oregon today are for opioids.
That’s about 1/3 more than the national average.
State statistics from last year show that there were enough prescriptions and refills to supply 1 in 4 Oregonians with opioids.
“Once people get opiates, sometimes people like them and they want more,” Luedtke said. “So there’s been a demand from the patient’s standpoint looking for that pain relief.”
That higher demand too often has led to confrontations between some patients and local physicians and insurers as they try to wean patients off the meds.
“Lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, threats of physical violence, all these things we’ve seen,” said Jason Davis, a spokesperson for Lane County Public Health.
And while prescription opioid deaths in Oregon have dropped in recent years,some physicians say they see use and abuse on the rise.
The federal Department of Health and Human service numbers show Lane and Linn counties are still in the top 7 in the state for drug poisoning deaths per 100,000 people.
So what’s being done to treat people?
One of the tools being used at Lane County Public Health is a synthetic narcotic used to treat heroin addicts: methadone.
“Methadone has a shorter period of time in which it’s affecting the body, and it doesn’t elicit quite the same euphoria and other ‘highs,'” Davis said.
But the county’s methadone clinic is operating at capacity. Not everyone who needs help can get it.
The tidal wave of opiates has grabbed the attention of Congress – and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.
“I want to make sure that we have enforcement – not so many narcotics automatically just given out indiscriminately, and prevention and treatment,” he said.
Wyden and 6 other senators held a conference committee session July 6 to look for coordinated solutions and recommendations – a national prescription for a health problem that has no easy fix.
On Wednesday, Wyden addressed the issue on the floor of the Senate.