Injured workers in Pennsylvania receive stronger painkillers per claim than the average state. That's according to a report released this month by the Workers Compensation Research Institute.
According to the study, the average injured Pennsylvania worker gets about 2,745 milligrams of a morphine equivalent narcotic per claim. That’s 32 to 48 percent more than workers in the average state.
Only in New York and Louisiana does the average injured worker receive more painkillers than in Pennsylvania. In those two states, the average injured worker receives 3,600 milligrams of a morphine equivalent narcotic per claim. To put it into perspective, that’s the same as an individual taking a routine 5-milligram Vicodin every four hours for four consecutive months.
According to Vennela Thumula, the author of the study, it’s the strength of the drugs prescribed in Pennsylvania that place the state toward the top of the list.
“In terms of the number of prescriptions and the number of pills, Pennsylvania is fairly typical,” she said. “But in terms of the kinds of the medications they are getting, they are more likely to get Schedule II narcotics, which are like OxyContin or Percocet.”
Thumula also said physicians in the northeastern states are “more comfortable prescribing these Schedule II medications.”
The readiness of Pennsylvania physicians to prescribe such strong pain medication could be connected to the increase in the state’s heroin-related deaths, according to Thumula.
For the last few years, Pennsylvania has been in the midst of an opioid drug abuse epidemic and according to Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams, many heroin users’ start down the path by abusing legal painkillers.
Between 2009 and 2013, about 3,000 heroin-related deaths were identified by Pennsylvania coroners.
Williams said, often times, heroin is “easily available” and “cheaper” than prescription painkillers.
Thumula agrees. She said starting patients on strong opioids when it isn’t necessary could lead to abuse.
“If OxyContin or Percocet is not available to them, they are at risk of abusing heroin,” she said. “So, it’s a problem that goes hand-in-hand.”
The study, “Interstate Variations in Use of Narcotics 2nd Edition,” is based on roughly 264,000 workers’ compensation claims and 1.5 million prescriptions filled in 25 states between 2009 and 2012.
In Pennsylvania, the study identified 12,000 claims and 57,000 narcotic prescriptions.