Prescription Drug Overdoses Have Become An Epidemic

October 17, 2013

Courtesy of Kim Obert
Kent Obert died in September 2003 of a prescription ovrerdose.

Arizona isn’t doing enough to stop prescription drug abuse. That’s the conclusion of a new national survey that ranks states based on fatal overdoses and misuse of legal, prescribed drugs. But now a statewide campaign is underway to get doctors do more to prevent the deaths. It may be as easy as checking a computer database.

Kim Obert shuffles through some photos of her son Kent. In some pictures Kent is wearing his favorite orange T-shirt and eyeglasses. Kim said he liked to dress like a surfer. 

"This picture here was on his 18th birthday and it was a happy day for us” Obert said.

But a few weeks after this photo was taken Kent was dead.  He had a history of drug use and one night ten years ago he mixed Oxycontin pain killers with beer. 

"It slowed his respiratory down. It slowed and slowed and slowed until it stopped,” Obert said.

Kent was a student at Paradise Valley Community College, a yo-yo champion, he was active in his church and he loved to play video games. Kim said he had a lot to live for. Now Kim uses Kent’s death to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse. She got involved with DrugFreeAZ.org. That’s an advocacy group that’s concerned about overdoses and does research on the problem.

“Right now, in Arizona, one if five high school seniors has abused a prescription pain reliever. That’s too many,” Obert said.

Last week, 18 high school students in Douglas got sick after someone shared attention deficit disorder pills with them.  The incident happened just as a new study was released that said the state ranked sixth highest in the nation for prescription drug abuse. The “Trust For America’s Health” survey also said there were more than 1,100 overdoses in the state in 2010. 

“Five hundred eighty five million pills were dispensed last year in Arizona. That’s enough to medicate every single adult around the clock for two weeks," said Shana Malone, a senior research analyst at the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. The group has done its own studies on prescription misuse and overdoses. “Almost every state has a prescription drug monitoring program but the problem is in Arizona, the physicians are not using it.”

Malone said that means patients can accidentally mix pain killers or people addicted to their meds can get more drugs that are often sold illegally on the street.  She said the state pharmacy board recently set up a prescription monitoring website, but many doctors are unaware it exists or they ignore it. 

“It’s a tremendously useful data base and it could save many lives," said David Greenberg, a doctor in Phoenix. Greenberg does a lot of medical testing to determine if prescriptions caused a person’s death. Last week he examined eight bodies of people who may have overdosed. He said it only takes a few moments for doctors to use the state’s prescription mapping website. 

"That’s a database that keeps a record of patients getting controlled substances, prescriptions, and it also keeps a record of the physicians prescribing those drugs" he said.
 
That’s useful information for law enforcement, which wants to bust so-called “pill mills” where doctors write prescriptions knowing that the pain killers are sold on the black market. 

One of Arizona’s highest rates of prescription abuse is in Yavapai County.  But Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said overdoses have decreased in the past few years because an education campaign has encouraged more doctors to voluntarily check the database. 

“Or even for the pharmacist, if somebody has altered a prescription and comes in and presents it to the pharmacist they can look it up and see that that person has had more than would be recommended number of narcotic pills in the past month, for example,” Polk said.
 
There is an effort to lobby lawmakers to require all doctors to use the prescription reporting program.

Polk is also among those who want to make it legal to allow a physician’s assistant to reference the database if a doctor is too busy. Supporters said mandatory use of the program allows doctors to make better decisions when prescribing drugs and will reduce fatal overdoses.   

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to reflect that Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is not part of an effort to lobby lawmakers to require use of the prescription reporting program.

Updated 10/18/2013 at 5:04 p.m.