Pennsylvania has made progress in fighting the opioid crisis but more work needs to be done, according to questions and testimony during a hearing of the House Human Services Committee.
Since the state’s prescription drug monitoring program launched in 2016, opioid prescribing has decreased by 25 percent through October 2018, said Meghna Patel, director of the program. The total number of patients seeing five or more prescribers and five or more pharmacists in a three-month time frame has decreased by 89 percent, she said.
The program also offers free educational programs to doctors and providers. Since March 2017, 1,800 health care providers have participated in the programs face-to-face and 2,100 have participated online.
But opioids continue to be a problem, particularly in Pennsylvania’s largest city. Opioid prescriptions quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley. And while sales have been falling since 2012, they are still nearly double what they were in 2001.
The number of overdose deaths is also a concern to health officials.
“Approximately 1,200 people have died from drug overdoses in each of the last two years, giving Philadelphia the highest overdose mortality rate by far of any large city in the nation,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner.
Part of the problem is the overprescribing of opioids by physicians, Farley told the committee. Most of the people addicted to heroin and fentanyl began their opioid use with legally prescribed opioids, he said.
“What more can we do?” asked Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bensalem. “Things keep getting worse, it appears to me.”
Pharmaceutical companies and physicians share in the blame, Farley said, noting that physicians need to stop overprescribing opioids. While the PDMP has done a good job, some say it hasn’t been used as well as it should in dealing with problematic physicians.
“These pharmaceutical companies should help come in and clean up the mess,” DiGirolamo said. “We need additional dollars to put in. Law enforcement would like to have additional dollars – the criminal justice system, treatment in prisons – I mean opening up state buildings for treatment.”
Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, said a letter is being prepared that will ask the state attorney general if there is a way to criminally charge opioid manufacturers.
Other solutions include adding more treatment beds and better communication between providers. Federal privacy laws prevent some information about patients from being shared, so providers are not aware that a patient is being treated for addiction.