Nationwide, the death rate from unintentional drug poisoning now rivals that from motor vehicle accidents. Since 1990, the national death rate from prescription drug overdoses has more than tripled.
This growing public health problem primarily involves prescription painkillers as well as anti- anxiety and insomnia medications.
Although the death rates in Nebraska and Iowa from prescription drug overdoses are below the national average, the rates in both states have climbed since the 1990s and show the need for greater public focus.
In 1999, Nebraska’s drug overdose mortality rate was 2.3 deaths per 100,000 residents. By 2010, the rate had risen to 6.7 deaths per 100,000. In Iowa, the 1999 rate was 1.9 deaths per 100,000 residents. By 2010, it had risen to 8.6 deaths per 100,000.
More than 33,000 Americans now die each year from prescription drug overdoses, a number equal to the deaths from motor vehicle accidents. In fact, in 29 states (though not in Nebraska or Iowa) more people die each year from drug overdoses than from highway accidents.
A new report from a nonprofit group, Trust for America’s Health, notes that from 1999 to 2010, sales of prescription painkillers per capita quadrupled in America and so did the number of fatal poisonings from such drugs. A related problem is the fraudulent purchase of controlled substances through abuse of the Medicaid program. Perpetrators employ “doctor shopping,” with the majority visiting six to 10 medical practitioners.
The point isn’t that society should abandon the use of prescription painkillers but that, in the wake of the increased death rates and the prescription fraud, it should take sensible steps to address those problems.
Nebraska and Iowa policy-makers have discussed this issue from time to time and taken some preventive steps. Trust for America’s Health recommends 10 such measures. Nebraska has adopted three; Iowa, six.
The measures adopted by Nebraska: creation of an electronic database to track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled prescription drugs; a “doctor shopping law” that forbids patients from withholding information about prior prescriptions; and a “lock-in program” requiring individuals suspected of misusing controlled substances to use a single prescriber and pharmacy.
Iowa has implemented those policies plus three more. It requires a patient to have a physical exam before receiving a prescription; requires increased education of medical professionals about pain management issues; and has expanded Medicaid coverage and as a result received additional federal funding for substance abuse treatment.
It’s up to each state to debate and decide which steps are appropriate for its specific circumstances. What’s beyond debate, though, is that our leaders need to be awake to this public health issue and take responsible action to tackle it.