Prescription drug abuse hits home

Nearly a third of Kentuckians report that a relative or friend has had problems as a result of abusing prescription pain drugs, according to a survey released Monday.

The rate was even higher in the Appalachian area of Kentucky, the Kentucky Health Issues Poll showed.

In Eastern Kentucky, 43.2 percent of those surveyed answered yes when asked whether a family member or friend had experienced problems because of abusing pain drugs. That was well above the state figure of 31.9 percent.

In the Lexington area, 39.4 percent of people surveyed said a family member or friend had problems that stemmed from prescription drug abuse. Western Kentucky had the lowest figure, at 19.7 percent.

Although other studies have shown that Kentucky has among the highest levels of prescription-drug abuse in the nation, the latest survey helps illustrate how pervasive the issue has become in the state, said Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

"That's a lot of people," he said. "To me, that's even bigger than I thought."

The survey found that younger people — ages 18 to 29 — were more likely to have a friend or relative who'd had a problem with pain pills than in other age groups. The figure was 43.8 percent in that age group, compared to 29.7 percent of people ages 46 to 64.

Other findings include that 54.5 percent of those polled in Kentucky said they'd been prescribed a pain reliever such as OxyContin, Vicodin or Percocet in the past five years. The rate in Appalachia was the lowest in the state, at 46.4 percent. That might reflect that there are fewer medical providers in that part of the state, and that fewer people have insurance, said Sarah Walsh, program officer for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

When people were asked whether they had ever used a prescription pain reliever not prescribed to them, or if they'd ever taken one just for the experience it created, 5.5 percent statewide said yes.

Nearly twice as many people ages 18 to 29 admitted using a pain drug improperly than in the state as whole.

"These findings underscore the impact misuse of prescription pain medications is having in Kentucky and the importance of work by prescribers and policymakers to assure that these drugs aren't used inappropriately," Susan Zepeda, chief executive officer of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in a news release.

The poll has been an annual initiative since 2008, but this is the first year it included questions related to prescription-drug abuse, said Walsh of the foundation, which helped pay for the poll.

Those questions were added because of feedback to the foundation about the severity of prescription-drug abuse in the state and the need to do something about it, Walsh said. However, the foundation does not have a position on specific steps that lawmakers should take to address the issue, she said.

The survey included questions only about use and abuse of prescription pain relievers. Consider other prescription drugs, such as anti-depressants, and the percentage of people touched by abuse is probably even higher, some authorities in Eastern Kentucky said.

"Practically every family I know in the area seems to have been affected one way or another," said Clay County Coroner Danny Finley.

The Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati conducted the poll, with funding from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati.

A random sample of 1,621 Kentuckians completed the survey, which was conducted by telephone calls to both land lines and cellphones from Sept. 27 to Oct. 27. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Prescription-drug abuse will be an issue in the upcoming legislative session.

Several lawmakers have said they plan to pursue proposals for increased regulation of pain clinics.

Most clinics operate legitimately, but police say others are "pill mills" — where doctors improperly prescribe large amounts of pain pills to drug addicts after little or no examination.

Gov. Steve Beshear has appointed a panel to come up with guidelines to help the state's prescription monitoring system spot potentially suspicious prescribing patterns by doctors and others, and there will be proposals requiring greater use of the monitoring system.

Ingram said the state needs to crack down on pill mills.

But legitimate medical providers also need to think more carefully about how they prescribe the powerful opioid pain medicines assessed in the survey, he said.

"We have to attack this thing on more than one front," he said.