Fewer people are dying from overdoses of prescription painkillers in Washington state, one of the first states in the country to enact tough laws to limit and monitor the use of opioid medicines.
The Washington state Department of Health says the overdose death rate fell by 23 percent, from 512 deaths in 2008 and 407 in 2011.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes. “While it’s encouraging that deaths have dropped, the death rate in 2011 was six times higher than in 1998. Health care providers play a critical role in prescribing medications and helping patients manage pain safely. Prescription pain medications are powerful drugs and must be handled carefully.”
Washington had one of the highest rates of accidental overdoses in the U.S. when it launched a series of measures in 2011 to combat the misuse and abuse of narcotic painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Six out of every 100,000 deaths in the state in 2011 are from prescription drugs
Pain management guidelines were established for health care providers who prescribe pain medication for chronic non-cancer pain. The state also began keeping track of pain prescriptions to combat drug diversion and doctor shopping.
Washington’s prescription drug monitoring program has collected information on more than three million prescriptions for controlled substances. About 22 percent of prescribers have registered to use the system. They have access to an online database and can see if their patients are already getting painkillers from other physicians.
“As a result, they have had a much better handle on their patient’s access to prescription drugs and as a result, our state’s number and rate of accidental opiate overdose death has declined,” said Cindy Markus, MD, of the Washington State Medical Association.
The latest data on overdose death rates does not include deaths from 2012, when HB 2876 was full implemented, repealing the state’s guidelines on pain management and replacing them with tougher rules for prescribers; including dosage guidelines, mandated consultation with a pain specialist, and requirements for tracking opioid use.
Many pain patients say the new rules have had a chilling effect on prescribers and pharmacists, who are now reluctant to provide pain medication to patients with legitimate prescriptions.