'We have people dying from this': Addiction to painkillers acute in Oregon
Watch #LiveOnKVAL July 13 and July 14 to learn more about the opioid addiction crisis
"We know that we have people dying from this," Dr. Patrick Luedtke with Lane County Public Health said. "We know that we have car accidents being caused by excess use of opiates."
Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and a host of other prescription drugs are at the center of this crisis. The category of drugs also includes heroin, a street drug that some addicts turn to when they can no longer access or afford prescription opioids.
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Since 1999, the number of prescriptions sold for highly addictive opioid painkillers has quadrupled.
So has the number of people who have died from using them.
"We have too many people addicted to them, and we're seeing the responses that happen when you have too many people using the opiates," Luedtke said.
And the problem may be especially acute in Oregon.
More than 6.5 percent of all prescriptions written in Oregon today are for opioids.
That's about 1/3 more than the national average.
State statistics from last year show that there were enough prescriptions and refills to supply 1 in 4 Oregonians with opioids.
"Once people get opiates, sometimes people like them and they want more," Luedtke said. "So there's been a demand from the patient's standpoint looking for that pain relief."
That higher demand too often has led to confrontations between some patients and local physicians and insurers as they try to wean patients off the meds.
"Lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, threats of physical violence, all these things we've seen," said Jason Davis, a spokesperson for Lane County Public Health.
And while prescription opioid deaths in Oregon have dropped in recent years,some physicians say they see use and abuse on the rise.
The federal Department of Health and Human service numbers show Lane and Linn counties are still in the top 7 in the state for drug poisoning deaths per 100,000 people.
So what's being done to treat people?
One of the tools being used at Lane County Public Health is a synthetic narcotic used to treat heroin addicts: methadone.
"Methadone has a shorter period of time in which it's affecting the body, and it doesn't elicit quite the same euphoria and other 'highs,'" Davis said.
But the county's methadone clinic is operating at capacity. Not everyone who needs help can get it.
The tidal wave of opiates has grabbed the attention of Congress - and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.
"I want to make sure that we have enforcement - not so many narcotics automatically just given out indiscriminately, and prevention and treatment," he said.
Wyden and 6 other senators held a conference committee session July 6 to look for coordinated solutions and recommendations - a national prescription for a health problem that has no easy fix.
On Wednesday, Wyden addressed the issue on the floor of the Senate.
Transcript of Sen. Ron Wyden's comments
If ever there was an issue that should be unifying to the Congress - that should bring Democrats and Republicans together to surmount a challenge - it should be the raging crisis of opioid addiction in America. This crisis is indiscriminate of politics and geography. It is ripping through our communities like wildfire. A recent editorial in one of my home state newspapers captured the extreme urgency of this struggle with the headline, "Opioids are winning."
Now after months of work, the Senate and House have come up with a bill. Colleagues, here's my take on the final product. This bill is a half measure, the work is not complete, and nobody should be doing victory laps. The reality is, this proposal leaves on the table an awful lot of opportunities to fight the battle against addiction.
A landmark study that came out a handful of months ago found that 80 percent of people hooked on painkillers or heroin aren't getting treatment. Under this bill, the waiting lines won't get much shorter. The thousands of babies born each year with an addiction to narcotics - this bill won't be enough to bring that number down to zero, where everybody knows it should be. In short, opioids will keep winning the war.
The package before the Senate has the kernels of a meaningful game plan, but in my view, it's a hollow piece of legislation. It sets up programs that could be a big help to people who are struggling to get their lives back on track, but it doesn't make the investments that would deliver on that promise.
Senators should know that doing only half the job now means that members will be leading with their chins when the appropriations process returns later this year. In this bill there's a program for pregnant women and new mothers suffering from an opioid use disorder. There's a program to help states take important strides when it comes to prescription drug monitoring, and there's better tracking within the VA. There's a plan to strengthen the networks of support in our communities that are best equipped to reach out to people who need help and fight addiction - physicians, employers, the criminal justice system, and more.
The bill, looking big picture, green lights the National Institutes of Health putting new energy into the development of safe, non-addictive, effective, and affordable drugs and treatments for chronic pain. And it sets up a task force and grants for states to construct what I see as a fresh approach to pain management and opioids - including education programs, treatment, recovery efforts, prescription monitoring, and strategies to prevent overdose and loss of life.
Getting those proposals off the ground is a first step, but the Senate is about to head home and put off the issue of funding to a later date. Nobody should be celebrating until the Congress finishes the job in the appropriations process.
And colleagues, there are also big questions about some particular pieces of this package. I'm extremely concerned, for example, about a provision that gives 75 million dollars in special kickbacks to the manufacturers of opioids that are considered so-called "abuse deterrents." I believe it is wrong for this bill, which does only half the job for Americans struggling with addiction, to give an unjustified windfall to drug companies.
I offered an amendment that said let's get rid of this windfall, and let's redirect that money to help pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid - women of limited means who are struggling to fight addiction and get back on track. But my amendment was defeated by members on the other side. So colleagues, let's be clear about what that means. This bill does not put funding into the programs that would help Americans who need help overcoming addiction, but it does give a 75 million dollar windfall to drug companies. In my view, that's a tough imbalance to explain.
Here's my bottom line, colleagues. There's a lot of work to go before the Congress can take a victory lap on its opioid legislation. I've heard stories like those again and again across my home state, which, it pains me to say, ranks fourth-worst in the country for abuse of opioids. A lot of those stories involve Oregonians who go from pills to heroin to a tragic ending. I've heard from doctors and pharmacists about the dangers these drugs pose and the incredible difficulty of treating pain safely. I've heard from advocates and community leaders who are doing everything they can to fight the crisis but still see it growing, particularly among young people. I'd wager that every member of this body is hearing similar stories.
So my colleagues and I on this side of the aisle will be here in the months ahead, and we will call on Senators to finish the job. Until then, the opioid crisis will continue raging unabated, lives will continue to be lost, and families will continue to be torn apart.