The Rising Opioid-Related Death Toll in California

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have officially announced the misuse, abuse, and overdose of prescription medications as a national epidemic. In the United States, more deaths result from prescription medication overdoses than car accidents. Despite serious risks of addiction and overdose, physicians today prescribe opioids for more than just short-term pain – they prescribe them for chronic pain such as backaches or arthritis. No surprise why California leads nation in opioid-related deaths.

As the sale of opioids such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone hit an all-time high, so does the number of opioid-related deaths. Prescribing opioids for chronic pain creates a scenario in which the patient takes painkillers consistently over a long period of time. As some of the most highly addictive drugs, many patients begin to misuse the opioids, running the risk of an overdose.

From 1999 to 2014, U.S. prescription opioid sales almost quadrupled. Yet there was no increase in the amount of pain reported in the same time frame. In the last 17 years, the number of people dying from opioid overdoses has also quadrupled. Today in the U.S., about one person dies every 18 minutes from overdose.

Tracking Opioid Misuse in California

California Opioid Related Deaths StatisticOpioid misuse is running rampant throughout California, leading to record-breaking highs for overdose deaths. California has seen a 34% rise in opioid-related deaths between 2006 and 2009. In 2013, 11,500 patients sought treatment in California’s hospitals for opioid or heroin overdose. This translates into approximately one overdose every 45 minutes – up more than 50% since 2006. In the same year, 1,934 people in the state died from opioid overdose. Today, the death toll has continued to increase across the state. Some CA counties record three times higher death rates than the national average.

While California’s statewide average for opioid-related deaths (4.2 per 100,000 people) is lower than the national average, the number of people affected by opioid abuse in the state is massive. There were 38.8 million residents in California as of 2015. As the state with the greatest population in the country, the rate of overdoses per 100,000 residents is substantially higher than in other states. The rates of California’s prescription opioid problem vary greatly from county to county, and even from neighborhoods in the same county.

Where Is California’s Opioid Problem Worst?

California’s northern rural counties see the highest opioid overdose rates in the state. From 2006 to 2013, hospitals in Shasta County saw more than triple the statewide average of opioid overdose cases. In those seven years, Shasta County alone saw 1,155 overdose patients – 8.1 per 10,000 residents. The other counties with the highest opioid overdose rates from 2006 to 2013 were as follows:

  • Plumas: 9.1 per 10,000 residents
  • Lake: 8.8 per 10,000 residents
  • Humboldt: 8.4 per 10,000 residents
  • Tuolumne: 7.5 per 10,000 residents

According to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths has steadily increased from 2006 to 2013, peaking in 2009 with 1,953 deaths in California. In 2013, emergency room visits related to opioid misuse reached a seven-year high at 6,108 people. In the same year, heroin caused 25% of all opioid-related deaths in California – an increase of 67% since 2006.

Whom Does Opioid Addiction Affect The Most?

According to a study by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, workers in blue-collar industries are the most likely to face opioid misuse and addiction. This is due to the higher likelihood of job-related injuries resulting in opioid prescriptions. On average, three out of four injured workers in America receive opioid prescriptions to relieve pain after a workplace injury.

A main contributor of this staggering statistic is physicians prescribing opioids and painkillers for chronic pain substantially more often than in the past. When a worker sustains a back injury, for example, a doctor may prescribe opioids consistently for years on end to control chronic pain.

How Gender and Age Factor Into the Cycle of Abuse

The American Society of Addiction Medicine found that women are more likely than men to suffer chronic pain and use prescription pain relievers. Women are also more likely to have prescriptions in higher doses and for longer periods of time than men. From 1999 to 2010, prescription opioid overdose deaths increased more than 400% among women, compared to 237% among men.

The rise of opioid misuse among adolescents and young adults has been a significant problem across the U.S. from 1994 to 2007, the number of opioids prescribed to young adults almost doubled. In 2014, about 168,000 adolescents reported an addiction to prescription painkillers. In the same year, a whopping 467,000 admitted to using pain relievers non-medically.

Getting Addicts Help Becomes Problematic

According to the Senate Committee on Finance, more than 91% of Californians who needed treatment for opioid addiction could not access help in the last year. The lack of available funds, treatment centers, and options for opioid addicts is contributing to the death toll. Addicted Californians are dying on the waitlist for treatment.

In the long term, prescription opioid misuse can lead to major health consequences. People with opioid addictions can suffer limitations in daily activities, mental health issues, impaired driving ability, overdose, and death. Finding the source of the opioid epidemic in California can help people fight prescription pain reliever addictions and prevent them in younger generations.

Examining The Sources of California’s Opioid Problem

Studies suggest that America’s recent opioid epidemic is due in large part to patients’ rights to pain relief. Various organizations throughout the years have lobbied for the use of opioids in large doses to fight chronic and short-term pain. In 1991, pharmacists filled about 76 million opioid prescriptions. In 2013, this number has skyrocketed to almost 207 million. On top of support from several organizations, the pharmaceutical industry Opioid Prescription Statisticshas aggressively marketed pain relievers in the U.S. America is currently the world’s biggest consumer of prescription opioids.

There are substantial variations in how doctors prescribe opioids depending on their professional beliefs and training. Health care professionals prescribing opioids too loosely or in too great a quantity has contributed to the problem. A sharp rise in the amount of illegal use of prescription opioids and illicit substances such as heroin has also factored into the country’s ongoing drug overdose epidemic.

Illegal drug use has especially risen in young adults and adolescents, pointing to an underlying problem with educating America’s youth on the dangers of prescription painkillers and other drugs.

Hope for California’s Future

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is taking measures in response to the national epidemic. The CDPH partnered with state groups to create the Prescription Opioid Misuse and Overdose Prevention Workgroup. The mission of the Workgroup is to explore ways to address the national prescription drug epidemic, improving collaboration between state agencies. The Workgroup strives to promote effective and safe prescribing policies in the health care industry, reducing unnecessary or superfluous prescriptions.

Other goals of the Workgroup include enhancing proper use of opioids, including safe storage and proper disposal. Failure to dispose of leftover or unused prescription medication leads to stolen medications and misuse, especially in young adults who have access to parents’ medicine cabinets. The Workgroup also supports alternative methods for pain management and medically-assisted treatments. Four task forces have convened as arms of the Workgroup to address certain facets of California’s opioid problem:

  1. Communications and Outreach
  2. Date Gathering and Sharing
  3. Integrated Health Care and Policy
  4. Treatment

On top of these coalitions, President Obama signed a new Act into law, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, hoping to expand the availability of the opioid overdose-counteracting drug, naloxone, to first responders. It also strives to improve prescription drug monitoring programs and allocate more resources toward treating those suffering from addiction.

Instituting Prevention Initiatives

The CDC gave the CDPH a four-year grant in 2015 to address California counties’ issues with opioids. With this funding, the CHPH created the PDOP, Prescription Drug Overdose Prevention Initiative. The PDOP concentrates on three main goals:

  1. Tracking and monitoring all opioid prescriptions in the state through the Controlled Utilization Review and Evaluation System.
  2. Working with health care systems and insurance plans to encourage safer prescribing policies and more naloxone for treatments.
  3. Coalition with local health departments and the community to increase outreach, education, interventions, and local health consequences data.

With these goals in mind, the CDPH and the California Health Care Foundation strives to spread education regarding opioid mortality and higher prescription rates.

What You Can Do To Help

Fighting the devastating opioids epidemic in California and throughout the country relies on shared responsibility. If there’s any hope to reduce the escalating number of opioid-related deaths in California, it rests with Californians and youth education. Spreading awareness of the dangers of misusing prescription drugs and taking heroin can prevent more people from using these drugs in the first place.

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