Roy Exum: Second On The 3rd

Thursday, July 3, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There are dogs that will once again run in mortal fear when the Fourth of July firecrackers make their annual appearance tonight and tomorrow as we celebrate Independence Day. And, oh, I wish we human beings were only half-as-smart – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced Tennessee has the second-highest rate of prescription pain-killer rates in the nation and we ought to be running for our lives.

If you’ll ask any county sheriff in the state what is his biggest problem he will answer “prescription drugs.” There are 46 Americans who die from overdoses of prescribed drugs every day and in the South – the poorest states in our country – it’s the worst. That’s because prescription drug abuse is “epidemic,” according to state officials.

Get this: in the state of Alabama health providers wrote 142.9 opioid pain prescriptions for every 100 citizens. Tennessee was so close it should have been a dead heat – 142.8 per 100 – while West Virginia (137.6), Kentucky (128.4) and Oklahoma (127.8) made up the Top Five. Next are Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana and Michigan but in every one of the Top 10 states more prescriptions were written than there are people!

In 2012 a total of 259 million prescriptions for opioids were written (such as hydrocodone and oxycodone) and that’s more than enough to put a bottle in the hands of every adult in the United States. Sure, these medicines are necessary and even ideal for moderate to severe pain but they are also highly addictive, causing “pill mills” to sprout up where busloads of “patients” arrive, are carefully coached what to tell an unscrupulous physician, and leave with hundreds of pills that will eventually be sold – at many times the cost -- on the black market.

For a time the state of Florida was a haven for illegal prescription drugs but after authorities put a vise-like grip on prescribing methods and made regulatory changes in 2010, the NY Times reported Tuesday that the death rate in the Sunshine State from opioid prescription drugs had fallen 27 percent since then and oxycodone deaths alone fell 51.1 percent. Moreover, Florida now ranks 37th in the nation in opioid use with 72.7 prescriptions written per 100 people – a full 18 percent less than neighboring Georgia (18th).

The good news? Tennessee is currently making huge strides to join Florida. A huge database now being kept at pharmacies across the state tracks the names of people who “doctor shop” (a felony) where multiple doctors write prescriptions to an abuser without the knowledge of one another’s actions. Insurance companies are tracking the number of prescriptions written and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is joining local law enforcement in catching offenders.

Just last month Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, noting than 1-in-every-20 Tennesseans has abused pain drugs in some fashion, announced a seven-point plan that even includes a “Good Samaritan” rule. Mental Health Commissioner Douglas Varney explained, "If you, for example, are with a group of people and you go into a coma or pass out, they can actually call EMTs or law enforcement or someone there to help and they wouldn't be prosecuted.”

But Governor Haslam’s biggest statement was that prescription drugs, while easily accessible with proper oversight, will cease to be abused in the Volunteer State. Buses will no longer come up I-75 and I-40 to the little towns where people think nobody is watching. At one time tiny Manchester, Tn., with a population of roughly 10,000, had four separate “pill mills” with each raking in thousands of dollars. That’s drying up fast.

Just for fun, think about this: If Alabama has 142.9 prescriptions for every 100 people and Tennessee ranks second with 142.8, how is it that California only has 57 per 100 patients? Hawaii is the best with just 52-per-100. New York is 59.5-per-100 and Minnesota is 61.6. How is it that in Tennessee we write twice as many scripts every year for narcotic opioids than Colorado (70.1) and 10 other states? That’s scary.

And as sure as I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Tennessee will never be second on the 3rd of July again.

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