The surprising overdose death of acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has put a spotlight on a national epidemic: prescription drug abuse. In workers' comp, prescription drugs have been an area of great concern for a number of years; so too in the public health and policy arena. But has the message -- and the necessary education -- filtered to the general public? It would seem not: According to the CDC, prescription painkiller overdoses nearly quadrupled in the decade from 1999 to 2008.
This past week, the New York Times framed the new reality: Prescription Painkillers Seen as a Gateway to Heroin
"Dr. Jason Jerry, an addiction specialist at the Cleveland Clinic's Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center, estimates that half of the 200 or so heroin addicts the clinic sees every month started on prescription opiates.
"Often it's a legitimate prescription, but next thing they know, they're obtaining the pills illicitly," Dr. Jerry said.
In many parts of the country, heroin is much cheaper than prescription opiates. "So people eventually say, 'Why am I paying $1 per milligram for oxy when for a tenth of the price I can get an equivalent dose of heroin?' " Dr. Jerry said.
In many parts of the country, heroin is much cheaper than prescription opiates. "So people eventually say, 'Why am I paying $1 per milligram for oxy when for a tenth of the price I can get an equivalent dose of heroin?' " Dr. Jerry said."
Oklahoma: One state's experience
The investigative journalism non-profit Oklahoma Watch recently published a report on the state's addiction: As Drug Deaths Rise, Millions of Narcotic Prescriptions Filled
According to this report, Once occupying the ignominious position of first in the list of states with prescription drug abuse, Oklahoma is now #8 on the list. In 2012, 844 Oklahomans were killed by overdoses, eclipsing the year's 708 traffic fatalities. The state has a real-time Prescription Monitoring Program that is reported to be one of the best in the nation, but doctors are not required by law to check the database before prescribing controlled dangerous substances. There was an average of 68 prescriptions per patient.
Oklahoma is also seeing a steep rise in heroin use, echoing the concept and experience that opioids are the gateway drug.
"Hal Vorse, a physician who treats habitual drug users and teaches new doctors about addiction at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, said he's seen the phenomenon in his own practice.
"We're seeing a big surge in heroin, and 85 percent of those people started on prescription opiates," said Vorse. "The cost of their addiction got so high that they switched to heroin because it's cheaper."
Vorse said the price on the street for OxyContin has risen to $1 to $1.50 per milligram. Addicts typically use 200 to 300 milligrams per day, he said. "They find out they can get an equivalent dose of heroin for a third of what it costs for Oxys," Vorse said."
On the Workers Comp front
Meanwhile, in workers' comp's battle against opioids, Joe Paduda says that Opioid guidelines are about to get a whole lot better with the anticipated upcoming release of guidelines by ACOEM. He's has a sneak peek and finds them to be "comprehensive, extremely well-researched and well-documented, and desperately needed."
But he also points out that more progress is needed: Why don't workers' comp payers have pharmacists on staff?.
"I'm only aware of three major work comp insurers (Travelers, BWC-Ohio, Washington L&I) that have pharmacists on staff; the North Dakota State Fund does as well.
With pharmacy costs accounting for somewhere around 15% of total medical spend, that seems like a "miss". Yes, pharmacy costs have been flat in recent years, but the impact of drugs on work comp claim duration and the medical and indemnity expense associated with long-term drug use is quite significant.