Encouraging people in pain to use opioids for relief if there are effective alternatives is, in a word, insane. Yet the federal government does just that, according to two U.S. senators from states hit hard by the drug abuse epidemic.
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., are familiar with the risks of opioid painkillers. Both their states have been hit hard by the drug abuse epidemic. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. New Hampshire is No. 4.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah saw 22.3 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 totaling 650 deaths in 2017 (the latest calendar year of data available).
Utah Department of Health noted in its May 2019 review of opioid deaths in the state that downtown Ogden is a “major hot spot in Utah, with an opioid overdose death rate of 39.1 per 100,000. While the majority of overdose deaths resulted from prescription opioids (58%), the area differs from Carbon/Emery (another hot spot in Utah) in that heroin rates were much higher (32%).”
Data from 2011-2015, the latest complete set available, shows deaths in Utah attributed to methadone and hydrocodone decreased, but increased more in fentanyl and oxycodone.
The two U.S. senators are urging federal Medicare officials to scrap a policy that provides health care providers with financial incentives to use opioid-based pain management treatments, rather than those based on other drugs and/or techniques.
“Under Medicare’s current reimbursement policy, the cost disparity between opioid-based pain medication and non-opioid drugs used to treat post-surgical pain creates a disincentive for providers to use the less addictive, non-opioid alternative,” Capito explained in a press release.
A critical aspect of the battle against drug abuse “is ensuring that the Medicare program does not create a perverse incentive for doctors to continue to prescribe opioids to patients,” the senator added.
Federal officials should look into the complaint by Capito and Shaheen. Uncle Sam should not be promoting use of opioids if viable alternatives exist. Our political leaders and health care providers should be doing more to reduce use and access to opioids. Even our youth get it, even if adults don’t.
Mercedes Randhahn, a 14-year-old from Ogden, made it to the top 30 in a national science competition for her unique idea on how people could safely dispose of opioids and “deactivate” them at home with substances readily available — inspired because of a friend who died by suicide after overdosing with medications not disposed of.
If federal officials continue to enable policies like Medicare’s current incentives, it will hamper Utah’s efforts to continue the decrease in opioid prescription deaths in our area, and across the state.