October 23, 2014

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Drug deaths in county have been rising but nearly tripled in 2012

Fatal overdoses from heroin and prescription drugs have been increasing nationally over the last decade, but the problem exploded in Lorain County last year.

Sixty people died from heroin or prescription drug overdoses, or a combination of both, according to Dr. Stephen Evans, Lorain County coroner. Forty of the deaths were predominantly from prescription drugs and 20 were predominantly from heroin. The deaths included teenagers and elderly people, but most of the victims were between the ages of 20 and 40.

“I’m seeing these mainly 20- and 30-year-old kids that have made a wrong turn in life somewhere, and they deserve a second chance. If they’re dead, they don’t get a second chance,” Evans said Monday. “It’s crushing to talk to mothers and fathers and spouses of the ones who died.”

Besides the human toll, Evans said increased autopsies, toxicological testing and transportation of corpses “bankrupted” the $419,00 annual budget of the coroner’s office. County commissioners had to add $15,000 to the budget in November. This year’s budget is nearly $490,000.

Evans blames the pharmaceutical industry for encouraging doctors to prescribe painkillers more liberally since the 1990s for the national increase in overdose deaths. Drugs once reserved for cancer patients began to be prescribed for a wide range of pain.

Evans cited a Dec. 15 Wall Street Journal article that documented how doctors sometimes cherry-picked statistics and were paid by companies like Purdue Pharma LP, the company that released OxyContin, to lobby state medical boards. The boards were encouraged not to penalize doctors for increasingly prescribing painkillers and to make under treatment of pain punishable. The Senate Finance Committee in May began investigating ties between pharmaceutical companies and pain experts.

Evans said pharmaceutical lobbyists in some cases have written government regulations of painkillers.

“They’ve infiltrated everything because they’re making money off of it,” he said. “Some of them are unscrupulous.”

Evans said he is sympathetic to people who legitimately need painkillers for their ailments, but the pharmaceutical industry needs to be more strictly regulated.

“The government will make that stand when the public says, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he said.

Evans said one of the downsides of stricter regulation of “pill mills” in Ohio is that it led addicts to switch to less expensive heroin, which has become more potent in recent years. Prescription pill addicts frequently switch to heroin when they no longer can afford pills.

The street value of popular opiods like oxymorphone, commonly sold as Opana, is about $1 per milligram, and one pill is often 80 milligrams. A bindle of heroin — about 0.34 of a gram — costs $10 to $20. A gram of heroin cost $150 to $180.

Evans and Thomas Stauber, CEO and president of Lorain County Alcohol Drug Abuse Services, said in addition to increased regulation, there needs to be more drug treatment. Stauber has been trying for months to get a federal waiver to allow expansion of his group’s 16-bed inpatient treatment facility in Lorain for female addicts and their children to 32 beds.

Stauber said he also hopes Gov. John Kasich will approve a regulation allowing the expansion of Medicaid under ObamaCare in 2014. With addiction increasing, Stauber said inpatient care — traditionally more effective for addicts than outpatient care — is desperately needed.

“The high level of relapse is just making it very difficult to treat people on an outpatient basis,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.