Just a few days ago, Vertava Health had the opportunity to interview the Tennessee Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Substance Abuse Services Rod Bragg. It’s important for us to stay on top of the issues affecting the public regarding alcohol and drug abuse so that we are better equipped to handle the constant flow of calls into our headquarters. I expected some startling numbers. At this point we all know someone or are connected to someone that struggles with addiction. Here are some of the things we found.
Pills Have Overtaken Booze
Prescription pain medicine has now surpassed alcohol as the drug of choice in Tennessee. In 2012, prescription opioids overtook alcohol for the first time, and it’s steadily rising. Almost 5% of Tennesseans have used pain relievers in the past year for non-medical purposes, and young adults (18-25) in the state are using prescription opioids at 30% higher rate than the national average.
An Equal Opportunity Offender
The epidemic doesn’t discriminate. When I asked them the statistics, they informed me that there was an increase among well educated, married, employed individuals. A lot of what’s causing this is the higher access to the drugs. There were 25% more controlled substances dispensed in just 2 years in the state and just in March of 2013 2010 people received prescriptions for opioids or benzodiazepines from 4 or more different prescribers. In that year alone, 25 physicians in Tennessee were prosecuted for overprescribing. And it’s accessible – more than 70% of people who use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons get them from a friend or relative – whether it be stealing or gifting.
The state isn’t taking this lying down. Implementing their Prescription for Success Program has already shown some promising results. In 2014, officials laid out 7 goals for the state along with 33 strategies to carry them out. Data suggests some of the numbers have gone down or stabilized, and Tennessee was one of the first 2 states to adopt a law regulating the distribution of prescription drugs by enhancing a controlled substance database. Doctors and practitioners are now required to log in and see first hand whether another doctor has written a prescription, cracking down on overwriting.
Thankfully, because Tennessee has a controlled substance database which can give us insight into the problem. Just to give you an idea of how bad our prescription pain medicine addiction is, here are some hard pills for you to swallow. On average, annually, for every person 12 years or older in the state of Tennessee:
- 51 pills of hydrocodone are dispensed
- 22 pills of Xanax are dispensed
- 21 pills of oxycodone are dispensed
A Ladies’ Man
The epidemic also affects more women than men. In the past decade there has been an approximate 1,000% increase in the number of pregnant women abusing opioids, from 5% to 54%. Let me say that again: 54% of pregnant women receiving treatment from the state were addicted to opioids.
“It crosses all racial and socioeconomic boundaries across the nation,” says Bragg.
Tennessee has seen a slight increase in heroin use here, thankfully not as much as the states in the northeast – YET. Because of the states plan to crack down on prescription pain medicine, more and more people are turning to heroin as a new resource for their high. It’s more easily accessible and it’s cheaper. It has overtaken neighborhoods – Norman Rockwell paintings of suburbia that now would closer resemble a Banksy. As New York Times reporter Michael Wilson pointed out in a recent article, prominent families wandering the streets looking for drugs.
What’s it to You?
So why do Tennesseans care? We’re well into the starting line. We are now where they started. And if something isn’t done to stop it, in the next few years we will be there.
“It affects suburban as much as urban areas,” says Bragg. “Most people aren’t getting their drugs off the streets. They’re stealing or getting them from relatives and friends.”
A Good Plan
Recently, the Joint Commission helped by regulating prescribers to not only check for vital signs, but also conduct pain assessments. This helps them determine if it’s just a slight back pain that doesn’t require an opiod or if they truly need a strong medicine to counteract the pain.
“We have seen an increase in snorting and IV usage,” says Bragg. “The effects tend to be quicker because of the soft tissue in the nose and the IV goes right into the bloodstream.”
Suboxone and Subutex
While Prescription for Success has cracked down on the supply side, pills and heroin are not the only problems in the state. A number of doctors are prescribing taper drugs like Suboxone and Suboxone or Buprenorphine without coupling them with treatment.
“There is a place for medicine-assisted addiction treatment,” says Bragg. “But it is absolutely imperative that it is coupled with treatment for the underlying issues. Therapy must be coupled with it.”
Many doctors do see treatment as a vital part of recovery from any drugs. All methadone clinics in Tennessee are required to offer treatment as well as taper drugs.
“The key is good, adequate treatment beds,” says Bragg. “We’re only providing treatment to about 11% of the people that need it.”
The Zombies Are Coming
We agree. Board the windows and stock the basement. What started in the northeast is making its way here. History shows us that once a monster is toppled, another one usually rises to power. Our mission at Vertava Health is to work with the state to fight off the zombies before they overtake Tennessee. Only 11% of the people that need treatment are actually receiving it. That means 89% of addicts in the state are in need of treatment. Are you one?
“There is help for prescription drug abuse and people do recover,” says Bragg
Most of the people that struggle with addiction feel isolated. I can promise you through our conversation with this official and internal research within our company that you most certainly are not alone. You don’t have to live your life staring down the bottom of an empty pill bottle. Call a place that’s committed to helping YOU.