This is what opioid abuse in Pennsylvania looks like | The Numbers Racket

May 13, 2019 12:14 pm

From the courthouse to the halls of state government  — and seemingly everywhere in-between — Pennsylvania has made fighting the scourge of opioid abuse a priority over the last few years.

And while there’s some evidence to show that effort is paying dividends, Pennsylvania, like every other state in the nation, has its work cut out for it. That’s the focus of this week’s edition of The Numbers Racket.

According to data compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 2,548 opioid-involved deaths statewide in 2017, for a rate of 21.2 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s higher than the national average of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people, the national data showed.

“In 2013, prescription opioids were the underlying cause of death in every one of two overdose deaths” in Pennsylvania, according to the institute. By 2017, the main cause of death was due to synthetic opioids — primarily from fentanyl. Deaths from synthetic opioids rose seventeen-fold, from 108 reported deaths in 2013 to 1,982 deaths by 2017, the national data indicated.

Overdose deaths from heroin reached a peak of 926 deaths in 2016, the national data showed. By 2017, the state recorded a more than 10 percent reduction, to 819 deaths.

With the advent of a prescription drugs database, Pennsylvania has been able to fight prescription opioid abuse.

According to a June 5, 2018 story by The Morning Call of Allentown, opioid prescriptions in Pennsylvania declined by 14 percent between 2016 and 2017. That was a sharper reduction than the nationwide average, the newspaper reported.

According to the national data, Pennsylvania providers wrote 57.7 prescriptions for every 100 people, compared to the national average of 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people. That’s a more than 30 percent decrease from a 2012 high of 83.3 opioid prescriptions per 100 people.

That showed in a decline in prescription-related deaths, which fell from a high of 5.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016 to 4.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017, the national data showed.

Speaking to The Morning Call, an official with The Pennsylvania Medical Society, the professional organization that represents physicians, said the state’s prescription drug monitoring program helped drive that decrease in prescriptions.

The use of Pennsylvania’s program grew steadily, The Morning Call reported, from 12.7 million searches in 2017, compared to 2.3 million in 2016. Nearly 30,000 providers registered for the program between 2016 and 2017, the newspaper reported, from 65,830 to 93,661 users.

A study released this week by the financial literacy site,, ranked Pennsylvania 20th nationwide in drug abuse issues. That’s based on a comparison of all 50 states, and Washington, D.C, across 22 different metrics, “ranging from arrest and overdose rates to opioid prescriptions and employee drug testing laws,” according to the report’s summary.

Mouse over the map for state-by-state results:

Source: WalletHub

“Treatment options are incredibly important for individuals with Opioid Use Disorder,” Courtney Olcott, a research scientist at the Indiana University School of Public Health, told WalletHub. “However, if we can keep the behavior from happening in the first place, we need to focus on prevention. To that end, the first step in effectively addressing the opioid epidemic at the state and local levels is to take a collaborative approach and have a representative coalition of individuals that understand all facets of the epidemic and ensure prevention is a prioritized focus.”

Nationally, Washington, D.C. finished first in the Wallethub ranking, registering the biggest drug abuse problem. Rounding out the Top 5 of states facing the biggest challenges were Michigan, Missouri, West Virginia and Indiana.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.