There’s good news and bad news. The number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is in decline.
Since 2010, the peak of opioid prescriptions, the agency tracked a 41 percent decrease. However, the analysis also revealed the prescribing rate is still three times higher than in 1999, near the beginning of America’s opioid crisis.
“We still have too many people getting [opioid painkillers] at too high a level and for too long,” the acting director of the CDC, Dr. Anne Schuchat, told The New York Times.
The issue that experts, like Schuchat, continue to point to is the longer a patient stays on prescription painkillers the greater their chances of developing an opioid addiction. “If you are on opioids longer than three months,” Schuchat said, “your risk of addiction increases by 15-fold.”
In fact, the amount of opioids prescribed in 2015 could provide every person in the U.S. round-the-clock painkillers for an estimated three weeks.
Another disturbing trend is the increase of fatal heroin overdoses in areas of the country where stricter prescription guidelines were enacted. This might suggest that at least some patients, cut off from their supply of legal opioid prescriptions, turn to heroin, which is cheaper and much more plentiful.
However, the CDC points to a number of studies that find no correlation between tighter prescription opioid policies and an increase in illegal drugs, like heroin.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that data, collected between 2002 and 2012, shows a greater rate of heroin use – 19 percent higher – among individuals that reported the non-medical use of opioid painkillers.
Where Do People Get Prescription Painkillers?
The supply of painkillers that people obtain for non-medical use, according to NIDA, comes from three main sources:
- Personal prescriptions
Whether or not data from the CDC and NIDA contradict each other’s findings, the opioid epidemic continues to touch nearly every aspect of American life, even making it harder for manufacturing employers in the nation’s rustbelt to find workers that won’t fail drug tests.
“Imagine the money we could save or invest as a company if I were able to hire drug-free workers on the spot. But that’s just not the environment we’re in,” Regina Mitchell said in a New York Times interview.
Mitchell is co-owner of a fabrication and machining company in Hubbard, Ohio, which provides insurance for its employees. Last year, her company had to spend $300,000 on treatment for an employee’s opiate addicted newborn.
So far, no policies, including stricter prescription rules or the “war on drugs,” have slowed the rise of opioid overdoses in the United States. One estimate puts the number of drug deaths, made worse by the prevalence of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl and carfentanil, between 59,000 and 65,000 people.
While it’s a positive sign that the number of opioid prescriptions are down, the crisis of addiction and fatal overdoses have not abated. The added stress of an uncertain future for government funded treatment programs aimed at opioid addiction has many healthcare experts sounding the alarm.
“It’s going to take a while to get out of this because so many people are already addicted,” said Dr. Schuchat. “We’re all very impatient; we all see this as an emergency, but it’s going to take a while for it to get better.”