Pennsylvania Sees Dramatic Drop in Opioid Prescriptions

By: - January 5, 2017 12:00 am

Pharmacist Sarah Burke checks a prescription drug database in Columbus, Ohio, to see whether the patient may be taking any controlled substances. Pennsylvania started operating a similar database last year and saw a drop in opioid painkiller prescribing within months.

© The Associated Press

Within months of launching a registry to prevent patients from receiving opioids and other potentially addictive prescription drugs from more than one doctor, Pennsylvania saw a substantial drop in the number of prescriptions for painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet.

Authorized by the Legislature in 2014, Pennsylvania’s prescription drug monitoring program only began operation in June 2016, because of budget constraints. Within months, insurers reported a decline in total opioid prescriptions.

As in every other state except Missouri, Pennsylvania’s online registry allows prescribing nurses and physicians to see what prescriptions a patient may already be receiving from other prescribers. Similar to other states, Pennsylvania’s system requires pharmacists to update patients’ prescription drug history each time they fill a prescription.

In the first eight months of 2016, Highmark, one of Pennsylvania’s largest insurers, said the number of monthly reimbursements for opioid painkillers ranged from 110,00 to 118,000. From September through November, the number was about 107,000 each month. December numbers were not yet available. Other insurers in the state reported small but steady declines.

Nationwide, the number of prescriptions for highly addictive opioid painkillers dropped 10 percent between 2013 and 2015, a decline attributed to greater awareness of the dangers of painkillers, as well as more restrictive prescribing guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state drug monitoring systems.

Overdose deaths involving prescription opioid painkillers have quadrupled since 1999, and so have sales of the drugs. From 1999 to 2015, more than 183,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids. In 2015, prescription opioids were involved in more than 33,000 deaths, the CDC reported. 

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.