Prescription Drugs

Pittsburgh's location as a drug-trafficking corridor warranted the city's inclusion into a federal initiative aiming to stymie the nation's opiate epidemic.

“360 Strategy” coordinates federal agents, local officers and community groups into a three-fold approach, said Gary Tuggle, Special Agent in Charge for the Philadelphia Division for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. 

Michael Chen / flickr

Our content partner PublicSource did a special investigation into medications purchased for youth offenders at the state's six juvenile corrections facilities over seven years. What did they find? A higher of rate antipsychotics being prescribed than for the state's foster children. We'll delve into it with PublicSource reporter Halle Stockton.  

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has received a renewable $900,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will go toward battling the state's prescription drug overdose epidemic.

Heroin and opioid overdose are the leading cause of accidental death in Pennsylvania. More people die from overdose than do from car accidents -- 2,400 in 2013 alone.

Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, called the overdoses “a critical public health crisis.”

The number of fatal drug overdoses in Pennsylvania has increased by 89 percent since 1999, according to the Trust for America’s Health. To help combat drug, alcohol, and gambling addiction, the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has launched a website called “Get Help Now” to improve public access to addiction resources and information.

The website, designed by three Harrisburg Area Community College students, uses maps and search tools to connect site visitors to anti-addiction resources near them. People can use the site to get driving directions to the nearest treatment facility or to learn more about health insurance options.

About 325 thousand older Pennsylvanians receive state subsidized prescriptions under the PACE and PACEnet pharmaceutical assistance programs. 

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has begun a performance audit of the $400-million-a-year programs.

“Since so many older people depend on these programs, we want to make sure that they are being operated as efficiently and effectively as possible to ensure that the prescription benefits will be available in the future to those who need it,” he said.

Punchy Judy / Flickr

In 2014, heroin addiction and overdose deaths became an epidemic across the country, across the state of Pennsylvania and especially in Allegheny County.

Dr. Neil Capretto, Medical Director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center says the high rate of overdoses in southwest PA can be tied to use of prescription medicines, along with a blue collar and aging demographic.

"There was a need for pain medicines and doctor's started prescribing it and pharmaceutical companies started marketing to doctors heavily. And they were giving the message, 'This is safe, not addicting. Less than one percent of people who ever use Oxicodon ever have a problem.' That was the message from the companies. So there was a lot of prescription medicines, very heavy in our community. Then thousands of people in every town from Kittanning, to Downtown Pittsburgh, to Clarion, to Washington PA got hooked onto prescription medicines, and that led to the heroine problem."

Capretto explains that as an addiction to legal prescription opiates develops, heroin emerges as a cheaper alternative, once refills run out. But addiction is not simply about the relief of physical pain.

Capretto says he considers addiction to be a biological, psychological, social, and even spiritual disease. 

"Opioids are very good at stopping and blocking pain; physical pain, emotional pain, psychic pain... I've talked with thousands of people with addiction over the years and I never met one who started using any drug because they wanted to intentionally add more problems to their life on purpose. They're trying to solve some problem, block some pain." 

A Coordinated Effort to Cover the Complexities of Heroin Addiction

As news of the increasing number of heroin overdoses has made headlines throughout Pennsylvania, newsrooms are making a coordinated effort to cover the most important angles of this public health crisis.

Sharon Walsh, editor of the investigative journalism organization PublicSource, has been compiling the work of PA media outlets that have been reporting on the heroin problem.

In an effort to cut down on prescription drug abuse, the state is working to put together the Achieving Better Care by Monitoring All Prescriptions Program (ABC-MAP) oversight board by Jan. 25. Part of the law that created the board will also create a prescription drug database.

A long-sought expansion of the state system for tracking prescription drugs is expected to hit the governor’s desk this week.

The broadened database would monitor opioids, the powerful painkillers whose abuse has been linked to a spike in fatal heroin overdoses.

For about a year, state lawmakers have considered how to make it easier to track prescription drug abuse in Pennsylvania. Supporters say a plan to expand a patient database may be close to final passage.

The commonwealth already has a database to track the drugs most prone to abuse. Pending legislation would expand the tool to include prescriptions that treat migraines, seizures, and anxiety, as well as some cough medicines. Once in the database, those prescriptions would be subject to a dragnet by doctors, pharmacists, and (to an as yet unknown degree) law enforcement.

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.

The Corbett administration has announced a medication drug take-back program, calling on Pennsylvanians to dump their old prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs in one of the scores of receptacles at police stations across the commonwealth.

Law enforcement and medical professionals say the abuse of prescriptions has led to a surge in the use of drugs like heroin.

Gov. Tom Corbett says getting rid of drugs that sit in medicine cabinets for years brings down the chances that they’ll end up in the hands of people who may misuse them.

Flickr user Grumpy-Puddin

If you have hemophilia, multiple sclerosis or any number of other hard-to-treat diseases, the cost of your medications alone could reach into six figures, depending on your insurance coverage.

“It’s roughly $15,000 a month, and from that I’m lucky to have good insurance so we have good co-pay structure, co-insurance," said Nick Vizzoca, whose 13-year-old son has hemophilia.

The Pittsburgh resident said he is worried his son’s medication could be placed into a specialty tier and the co-pay could sky rocket.

National Prescription Drug Take Back Day

Oct 23, 2013

Be it antibiotics or pain medication, in the past, most people have disposed of their leftover pills in toilet, which can cause drinking water contamination and other environmental concerns.

Run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, National Prescription Take Back Day provides people with a safe, responsible and convenient way to turn in their drugs.

According to Michael Stepaniak, an environmental program coordinator for the PA Resources Council, they accept everything from prescription drugs to controlled substances. It is completely anonymous and no questions are asked.

A new study released Monday shows Pennsylvania has the 14th highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation.

Albert Lang, communications manager at the Trust for America’s Health, said this is the first time the organization has aggregated such data.

They were motivated to do so after compiling related data on accident and injury deaths, which includes drug overdoses.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

The municipality of Mt. Lebanon announced a new initiative to fight prescription drug abuse on Wednesday.

The program is called Stop Addiction for Everyone, or SAFE, and includes a poster campaign, a PSA, and the installation of a new prescription drug drop box at the Public Safety Center on Washington Road.

One state lawmaker’s call to investigate the proliferation of prescription drug abuse in the commonwealth could be the opening salvo in a war on drug companies, or a blip on the radar in the Legislature.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) says he’s had it.