Drug overdose deaths skyrocket in Ohio

More than 3,000 unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2015; Kasich points to 81 million fewer opioid doses dispensed in Ohio.

Ohio’s strategy

Officials from Ohio’s health, addiction and public safety agencies and its pharmacy board hope to curb the epidemic of drug overdoses and deaths by using a variety of strategies, including:

Enforcement: Work with lawmakers to stiffen penalties for people illegally selling fentanyl, support local drug task forces and step up drug-seizure efforts.

Emergency response: Provide resources to make more naloxone available and expand public awareness campaign about the opioid overdose reversal drug.

Treatment: Expand addiction treatment programs offered through drug courts to seven more counties with high numbers of fatal overdoses, and develop a tool kit that hospital emergency departments can use to help direct overdose patients to treatment and community resources.

Tracking: Integrate the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System into more electronic medical records and pharmacy dispensing systems, and make educational information about opioid prescribing part of the licensure process for physicians.

Prevention: Promote drug take-back opportunities for safe disposal of unneeded medications and get more parents, teachers and community leaders signed up for emails that offer tips for talking with youth about substance abuse.

Sources: Ohio Department of Health, Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services

Significant rise in fentanyl-related overdose deaths

Illicit use of the powerful opioid called fentanyl was a significant contributor to the rise in drug overdose deaths in 2015 in Ohio:

  • Fentanyl-related unintentional drug overdose deaths more than doubled from 503 in 2014 to 1,155 in 2015.
  • Most often used to treat patients with severe pain, fentanyl is a Schedule II synthetic narcotic that in its prescription form is estimated to be 30-to-50 times more potent than heroin and 50-to-100 times more potent than morphine.
  • Illicit fentanyl has been observed being mixed with other commonly abused drugs, such as heroin, resulting in increased deaths.

Significant rise in fentanyl-related overdose deaths

Illicit use of the powerful opioid called fentanyl was a significant contributor to the rise in drug overdose deaths in 2015 in Ohio:

  • Fentanyl-related unintentional drug overdose deaths more than doubled from 503 in 2014 to 1,155 in 2015.
  • Most often used to treat patients with severe pain, fentanyl is a Schedule II synthetic narcotic that in its prescription form is estimated to be 30-to-50 times more potent than heroin and 50-to-100 times more potent than morphine.
  • Illicit fentanyl has been observed being mixed with other commonly abused drugs, such as heroin, resulting in increased deaths.

Unintentional drug overdose deaths in Ohio skyrocketed to more than 3,000 in 2015 — an average of more than eight per day — according to a state health department report released Thursday.

Despite an increase in such deaths, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said “we’re beginning to see it’s going to change.”

Speaking at a downtown hotel at the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative, which was attended by representatives from nine Midwestern states, Kasich pointed to a drop in opioid pain pill prescriptions as a positive sign.

“We can’t jail or bust our way out of this problem,” he said, but rather attack it at the community level.

The battle for Ohio, and the country, in the war on opioid abuse is fighting for that lost generation “who grew up without any concerns for these pills,” Kasich said.

His speech came during a week in which Cincinnati first-responders made 50-plus overdose runs in a 48-hour period.

“We’re suffering for that generation who never really understood the lethality of that medication,” he said. “Our goal now is to not only deal with this generation affected, but we have to deal with that generation that’s more aware and we have to stop them, and communicate to them that we don’t touch this stuff.”

Kasich said his authorization of the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio is helping to battle drug abuse by opening up health care options to some 400,000 citizens. He said the decision was about "politics of people, not politics of policy."

Fewer opioids prescribed

Accidental overdose deaths increased in the state by more than 500 in one year — from 2,531 in 2014 to 3,050 in 2015, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

A significant portion of those deaths are due to the synthetic narcotic fentanyl, which is 30-to-50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl-related deaths in Ohio spiked 13-fold from 2013 to 2015. Just 84 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2013. That number increased to 503 in 2014 and more than doubled to 1,155 last year.

“Ohio was one of the first states to see the rise of fentanyl over the past couple of years, as the opiate epidemic continues to evolve to more powerful drugs,” said Dr. Mark Hurst, Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services medical director.

“We knew when we started this battle five years ago that progress wouldn’t be easy, but we are well prepared to stay on the leading edge of fighting this epidemic.”

The number of prescription opioid-related deaths compared to unintentional overdose deaths declined in Ohio for the fourth straight year, according to Department of Health Medical Director Dr. Mary DiOrio.

“In the midst of this growing opiate epidemic, we are seeing positive indications that our aggressive efforts are working to reduce opioid prescription pain medications available for abuse,” she said. “There were 81 million fewer opioid doses dispensed to Ohio patients since the state took initiatives to curb opiates, and the number of people who try to get controlled substances from multiple doctors has dramatically decreased.”

DiOrio said that decline of opiates dispensed to Ohio patients is due, in part, to the reduction of the prescription pill supply, increased law enforcement efforts, increased prescription drug monitoring by prescribers and pharmacists, and establishing opioid prescribing guidelines.

Targeted counties

In May, a campaign targeting 15 Ohio counties — which account for 80 percent of the state's fentanyl-related overdoses in 2014 — was launched to urge family members and friends of people who use drugs to obtain naloxone to administer during an overdose while waiting on first-responders to arrive. Earlier this year, Kroger and CVS Pharmacy announced they would be selling naloxone.

According to the Associated Press, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia were among the five states with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in 2014.

Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia were among 14 states that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified as having significant drug overdose death rate increases from 2013 to 2014.

Kasich said former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who in the 1980s championed the "Just Say No" campaign, had it right. In January 2015, Kasich launched his "Start Talking" initiative.

“If a kid hears an anti-drug message there’s a 50 percent chance they will never do drugs,” he said.

Other programs intended to reach youth include 5 Minutes for Life, in which members of the Ohio Highway Patrol talk with student leaders, such as athletes and student council members, about responsible decision-making, leadership and living a drug-free lifestyle.