Highlight on Massachusetts: Seeing the opioid crisis differently

Massachusetts, like many states, has an opioid epidemic. The number of individuals experiencing opioid-related overdose and death in Massachusetts was four-times higher in 2015 than it was in 2000. The crisis isn’t new, but state health officials have taken a new step to raise awareness and disseminate information concerning the epidemic. State health officials released an interactive website designed to display information graphically so that it will have a more profound impact.

Chapter 55

As part of an effort to combat the epidemic, Chapter 55 of the Acts of 2015 was signed into law—a piece of state legislation that permitted an analysis of government datasets to achieve better understanding of the opioid crisis. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) led the data analysis, which culminated in a report: The Chapter 55 Report. The report identified a number of trends as well as analyzed key factors impacting the crisis, including: costs, growth of addiction, prescriptions, illegal drugs, and demographics.

Crisis

The crisis in Massachusetts is above the national average, due in part to a sharp rise in opioid-related deaths in the last two years. For example, 2014 was the first year since 1999 that the fatal overdose rate in Massachusetts was more than double the national average. Additionally, while, in 2000, about one third of admissions to substance abuse treatment centers were opioid-related, by 2015, opioid-related issues accounted for more than half of admissions. A similar pattern was documented by the Health Policy Commission in terms of emergency department visits and hospitalizations.

Deaths

The website offers novel displays of opioid-related death data, including state maps that demonstrate by county across three blocks of time—2001 to 2005, 2006 to 2010, and 2011 to 2015—the number of individuals, per 100,000 people, who died as the result of opioids. By scrolling over a county, the maps demonstrate the five-year death rate for that county and the death rate per 100,000 people. Some counties have undergone massive increases in their opioid-related death rate. For example, from 2001 to 2005, Eastham County had a five-year death count of zero and a death rate per 100,000 people of zero. In stark contrast, from 2011 to 2015, Eastham County had a five-year death count of nine and a death rate per 100,000 people of 36.3.

Heroin

Another set of maps demonstrates the percentage of patients in treatment who listed heroin as their primary substance of abuse. The four separate maps correspond to the frequency of that designation, by county, in 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015. In 2000, only about 20 counties were identified as having over 46 percent  of substance abuse treatment patients indicating heroin as their primary substance of abuse—a designation shown as green on the map. The 2000 map is merely speckled with green. By 2015, however, the map is almost entirely green, with the majority of counties marked as having over 46 percent of patients indicating heroin as their primary substance of abuse.

Transition

The website also uses graphics to display the trends related to the transition between prescriptions and illegal opioids.  The graphics demonstrate, based upon specific drugs—heroin, fentanyl, prescription opioids, methadone—the likelihood that an individual had a legal opioid one, three, or six months before death.  For example, in Massachusetts, between 2013 and 2014, 867 individuals who died of an opioid-related overdose had a positive toxicology screen for heroin. Sixty-five percent of those individuals had a legal opioid prescription between 2011 and 2014.

Conclusion

The website offers information about addressing substance abuse and gives examples of steps that can still be taken to expand treatment options, tailor treatment and prevention efforts, and develop post-incarceration treatment plans. The Massachusetts DPH aims to continue to use data as a tool to obtain insight and solutions for the problem.  If nothing else, the agency’s graphic depiction of the Chapter 55 Report is successful in that it is a stark and dramatic way to say: something is wrong.

Highlight on Hawaii: Lawmakers say aloha to stronger overdose measures

More people in Hawaii die from drug overdoses than car crashes—a reality that is driven by an excess of opioid abuse. However, recent efforts are directed at reducing the state of Hawaii’s opioid crisis. A key component of the state’s fight against drug abuse is a piece of legislation (S.B. 2392) which creates immunity for those who describe and dispense overdose reversal medication such as Naloxone. Additionally, the law authorizes a greater range of individuals to administer such medications to individuals experiencing an overdose.

Drug abuse

In 2015, Hawaii saw 158 deaths from drug poisonings/overdoses, adding to the total of 1,523 over the past 10 years. Drug overdoses are a greater problem in Hawaii than in other U.S. states. For example, drug overdose deaths increased by 83 percent between 2006 and 2014—an increase which more than doubled the 37 percent average rise nationwide. There is speculation that Hawaii may be particularly susceptible with respect to overdoses due to its isolation and the inconsistency in the quality of drugs brought to the islands.

Naloxone

The FDA approved Naloxone to prevent overdose by opioids such as heroin, morphine, and oxycodone. The drug reverses the toxicity of an overdose by blocking opioid receptor sites. The medication is administered when a patient is showing signs of an opioid overdose. The drug is an important life-saving medication, according to a community health outreach worker who has heard stories about “people trying to help friends overdosing on narcotics like opioids, injecting them with everything from saltwater to milk.”

Law

The law encourages the prescription, distribution, and administration of Naloxone through a variety of measures. A key provision of the law is immunity that it provides for health care professionals and pharmacists who prescribe, dispense, distribute or administer overdose medications like Naloxone. The legislation also authorizes several kinds of individuals—police, firefighters, lifeguards, all emergency medical technicians, family, and friends—to administer drugs like Naloxone to individuals experiencing opioid-related drug overdoses.

Bigger than Hawaii

The opioid crisis is a problem that stretches far beyond the island chain of Hawaii, with overdose deaths from prescription painkillers claiming 165,000 lives in the U.S. since 2000. Part of the problem is the widespread prescription and use of opioids. In 2015, 227 million opioid prescriptions were written, enough for 9 out of 10 American adults to receive a bottle of opioids.

Influence

An investigation by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity discovered that the prevalence of opioid use and abuse may be, in no small part, related to the financial efforts of pharmaceutical manufacturers. For example, the investigation found that “drug companies and allied advocates spent more than $880 million on lobbying and political contributions at the state and federal level over the past decade.” The figure is staggering when juxtaposed with the $4 million spent by organizations advocating for limits on opioids and the fact that the pharmaceutical lobbying is eight times higher than spending by the gun lobby over the same period. Additionally, the pharmaceutical industry maintains an average of 1,350 lobbyists covering all 50 state capitals.

A step forward

However, despite these significant and growing challenges, states like Hawaii are taking steps to reduce the impact of opioids. Authorizing greater utilization of drugs like Naloxone is an important move in the journey towards eliminating opioid abuse, one that all states can benefit from.

HHS marks Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness week with $44.5M grant

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will award more than $44.5 million in awards to training programs aimed at increasing the number of mental health providers and substance abuse counselors in the United States.  The funding includes 144 new and continuing grants through the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training (BHWET) program.

Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program

 The BHWET program supports clinical internships and field placement programs for professional and paraprofessional behavioral health disciplines and occupations. The initiative serves children, adolescents, and transitional-age youth at risk for developing or who have a recognized behavioral health disorder by adding to the behavioral health workforce. Recipients of grants under this program are expected to expand the behavioral health workforce by participating in internships and field placements focusing on working with these at-risk individuals. Activities under the grant emphasize prevention and clinical intervention and treatment for those at risk of developing mental and substance abuse disorders and the involvement of families in preventing and treating behavioral health conditions.

Of the $44.5 million grant, more than $7.9 million will support a total of 34 new grantees, and the other $36.6 million will fund the program’s 110 existing grantees.

Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week

President Barack Obama designated the week of September 18 – 23, 2016, Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week. During this time, federal agencies focused on the work being done across government entities and announced new efforts to address the epidemic of prescription opioid and heroin abuse. In his announcement, Obama stated that he continues to “call on the Congress to provide $1.1 billion to expand access to treatment services for opioid use disorder.” The investments would build on the steps already taken to expand overdose prevention strategies and increase access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.