The number of potentially addictive prescription drugs dispensed by West Virginia pharmacies dropped by 31 million in 2017, the sharpest decline in a single year since the state started tracking such powerful medications, reports Eric Eyre, investigator for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in his January 21 column.
Controlled substances, which include prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety medications and amphetamines, declined by 12 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the WV Board of Pharmacy’s annual report.
Hydrocodone remained the most prescribed pain medication but the number of pills dispensed dropped by 8.4 million tablets. Oxycodone numbers decreased by 9.1 million. The Board of Pharmacy’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database has been tracking the highly regulated drugs since 2011.
Media reports, investigations and a barge of lawsuits against drug companies, pharmacies and doctors have raised awareness about prescription narcotics and overdoes deaths, said Mike Goff, acting executive director of the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy. “There’s been more scrutiny by everyone,” Goff said.
Goff’s agency also have been notifying doctors and pharmacies about overdoes deaths. “If one of these drugs is listed as the cause of death, we’re sending letters to the doctors who wrote the prescriptions and the pharmacies who filled the prescriptions, letting them know their patient died,” he said.
The pharmacy board also alerts medical licensing boards about possible over-prescribing, if a medical professional is linked to a large number of overdose deaths. “If we see some unusual activities by doctors and pharmacies, we notify their licensing board,” said Goff.
The number of two controlled drug — amphetamines and buprenorphine — increased between 2016 and 2017. Buprenorphine jumped by one million doses. Overall, however, controlled substances declined from 267.2 million to 235.9 million doses.
Release of the Board’s report comes as state lawmakers grapple with legislation that aims to further curb the number of painkillers doctors can prescribe. The bill (Senate Bill 2) would limit initial prescriptions to a seven-day supply for short-term pain. The proposed pain pill prescription limit would not apply to cancer and hospice patients.
If the bill passes, West Virginia would join about two dozen states that have set limits on opioid prescriptions for acute pain, such as that caused by a tooth extraction or ankle sprain.
In 2016, 884 people fatally overdosed on drugs in West Virginia. That was the highest drug overdose death rate of any state. Heroin- and fentanyl-related overdose deaths were most common, but recent data has shown many of those who overdosed had a prescription for an opioid painkiller within the previous year.
Illegal methamphetamine- and cocaine-related deaths also have increased significantly over the past year. A final report of the 2017 fatal overdoses isn’t expected until May.