Fewer Kentuckians report getting prescriptions for pain pills in recent years

Throughout Central and Eastern Kentucky, people report they’re being prescribed less of the addictive pain medications that helped create the state’s opioid abuse epidemic.

The 2017 Kentucky Health Issues Poll shows that 34 percent of Kentuckians reported they had been prescribed a pain reliever, such as Oxycontin, Vicodin or Percocet, in the past five years. In 2011, that number was 55 percent.

In Eastern Kentucky, the number went from 46 percent in 2011 to 26 percent in 2017, while Central Kentucky mirrored statewide trends, moving from 55 percent to 36 percent.

“This poll shows we are looking in the right direction,” said Rachelle Seger, a community health research officer at the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which conducts the poll. “There are less pain pills out there, so we can see that prescribing practices have changed.”

Kentucky, West Virginia and other states were flooded with prescription pain pills throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading to a raft of opioid addictions. Drug manufacturers then made them harder to crush and snort, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Policy, which led many people to switch to heroin.

Kentucky now has one of the highest overdose death rates in the nation due to drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. In 2017, 1,565 people died in Kentucky from a drug overdose.

The Kentucky Health Issues Poll is backed up by data from KASPER (Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting), which tracks prescription rates of controlled substances. According to Van Ingram, executive director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, medical personnel dispensed 371 million dosage units of opioids in 2011 for pain, the most ever. In 2017, that number fell to 287 million.

“It’s still enough to give every man, woman and child their own bottle, but to see that number trending down is good news,” Ingram said.

Ingram noted that many people have been prescribed opioids for pain for many years, and those people need to be weaned off the extremely addictive drugs slowly.

“We are turning in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t know when we’ll know it’s the right amount, but physicians and and dentists are much more cautious now about prescribing opioids, and in fewer amounts.”

Ingram said he thinks the rate will continue to go down, thanks in part to 2017 legislation that limits prescriptions for opioids for acute pain to three days, although doctors can make exceptions.

“Hopefully we’ll be creating fewer and fewer people with an opioid use disorder by accident,” he said.

Drugs are still a problem in Central and Eastern Kentucky, according to the poll. In Eastern Kentucky, about 14 percent of people say they have friends or family who have problems from using heroin, while 18 percent in Central Kentucky said the same thing.

The Kentucky Health Issues Poll is conducted annually to assess what Kentucky adults think about a variety of health topics affecting the Commonwealth. The 2017 poll was conducted Oct. 24, 2017 to Dec. 2, 2017, by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. A random sample of 1,692 adults from throughout Kentucky was interviewed by telephone.

The poll also found:

Methamphetamine use is still a problem in Eastern Kentucky, where one in five adults reported knowing someone who has problems from using the drug. In Central Kentucky, that number was only about 10 percent.

In both regions, about 70 percent of those polled said they would support a comprehensive, statewide ban on smoking in public places;

Attitudes continue to change toward the Affordable Care Act. In 2017, for the first time in eight years of polling on the topic, Kentucky adults reported more favorable (44%) than unfavorable (33%) opinions about the health reform law. Twenty-three percent reported “don’t know.” About 87 percent of Kentucky adults favored providing access to affordable health care for all Americans, compared to 81 percent in 2013, the last time the question was asked in the poll.

Ben Chandler, executive director of the Foundation, called the changing attitude a “good sign.”

“I think that maybe we have the ability at some point to get everyone covered,” he said, “and ultimately that ought to be the goal because at the end of the day if you cover everyone, you have a better opportunity to enact good health policies across the population and you end up with better health.”

More than a half-million people died from opioids between 2000 and 2015. Today, opioid deaths are considered an epidemic. To understand the struggle of a drug addiction, we take a closer look at what happens to the body.