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Report Finds West Virginia Leads Nation in Drug Overdose Deaths

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, according to a report released Monday.

The number of overdose deaths in West Virginia - mostly from prescription pills - also increased six fold from 1999 to 2010, according to the report by the Trust for America's Health. West Virginians purchased more opiod pain relievers - drugs such as OxyContin and hydrocodone - on a per capita basis than residents of all but five states.

In West Virginia, the number of drug overdose deaths - nearly 29 for every 100,000 residents - even exceeded the number of people killed by auto accidents, the study found.

"The [drug overdose death] rate is high, and the rate of increase is dramatically higher than most states," said Rich Hamburg, deputy director at Trust for America's Health, a Washington, D.C.-based health policy group. "People in rural communities are about twice as likely to die from a prescription drug overdose as those living in urban areas."

West Virginia's drug overdose death rate was eight times higher than North Dakota's, which had the lowest rate. New Mexico had the second-highest drug overdose fatality rate, followed by Kentucky.

"It is tragic to see that West Virginia leads the nation in prescription drug overdose deaths, and that the number of deaths has grown so greatly in recent decades," said Beth Ryan, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

"Drug addiction is a scourge on our state, which is why we have committed a significant amount of resources within the [office] to help fight this epidemic from both a supply side and demand side. We have been working very closely with law enforcement and other agencies to help fight this issue from all angles."

Despite West Virginia's harrowing number of drug overdose deaths, the state seems to be moving in the right direction to combat the problem, Hamburg said.

The report - called "Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic" - spotlighted 10 steps states can take to lessen drug overdose fatalities.

West Virginia fell short in two areas: The state doesn't allow police and firefighters to administer naloxone, a drug that counters the effects of pain-pill overdoses and saves lives during emergencies.

JEMS on Naloxone

The state also doesn't have a "Good Samaritan Law" to protect people from arrest and prosecution on drug possession charges when they call 911 to report a drug overdose.

On the plus side, West Virginia requires doctors to take part in a statewide prescription-drug monitoring program - one of 16 states to do so. West Virginia is one of 22 states that require specialized training for doctors who prescribe narcotics.

West Virginia also received high marks for expanding its Medicaid program - a move that will increase substance abuse treatment for low-income residents, the report said.

The report gave West Virginia additional points for having a law that requires people to show a photo ID before they can purchase controlled substances at pharmacies.

West Virginia - with eight of the report's recommendations already adopted - outscored 29 states. New Mexico and Vermont scored the highest - 10 out of 10. South Dakota finished last with only two of 10 measures adopted.

Nationally, drug overdose rates have doubled in 29 states, tripled in 10 states, and quadrupled in four over the past decade, according to the report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"Prescription drugs can be a miracle for many, but misuse can have dire consequences," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health. "There are many promising signs we can turn this around, but it requires urgent action."

The report also cites a West Virginia University School of Pharmacy study on drug overdoses. Researchers examined 700 drug-related deaths in West Virginia from 2005 to 2007. About 25 percent of those who died visited multiple doctors for prescriptions and 175 percent went to multiple pharmacies.

House Health Committee Chairman Don Perdue said he was pleased that Monday's report recognized state laws and policies intended to curb drug overdoses. But state lawmakers must take additional steps, he said.

"It may be we can't stop the flood of that river, but we can pull people out of that river, and we need to pull them out fast," said Perdue, D-Wayne. "Folks are drowning in a sea of substance abuse. Our concern is how do we save people's lives."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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