Investigation delves into Wash.’s prescription drug problem

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Everything time we think prescription drug abuse stories have peaked, something comes along to push the story further. This time, InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith sets herself apart by starting from square one and clearly explaining the origins and dimensions of Washington’s particularly nasty drug issues, tracing back each facet of the problem to its source and spotlighting what makes the Evergreen State unique.prescription-drugs

Washington has been one of the hardest hit states in the country, in part because of aggressive prescribing practices. That, coupled with lack of oversight of doctors who over-prescribe, has led to the spectacular run-up in the number of deaths from prescription overdoses.

The backdrop for her work is an epidemic that shows no signs of abating, despite a recently implemented state law Smith calls “a bold attempt to reduce overdose deaths by launching the first-ever dosing limits for doctors and others who prescribe these medicines.”

Prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels throughout the state, and elsewhere in the country, despite lawmakers’ attempts to get a grip on it. Washington now has one of the highest death rates in the nation. Deaths from prescription drug overdoses in this state have skyrocketed nearly twenty-fold since the mid-1990s, and now outstrip those from traffic accidents.

Why caused it to leap so quickly? Smith tracks down several key tipping points. “There’s plenty of blame to go around for what caused the epidemic,” she writes. “Aggressive marketing of opiates by drug companies, nonexistent tracking of overprescribing, lack of insurance coverage for alternative treatments for pain, and demand by patients for quick fixes, to name a few.”

She drills down into many of those causes, with my personal favorites being two key origin stories:

  • How marketing by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma led to relaxed guidelines for chronic pain treatment and a “1999 law specified ‘No disciplinary action will be taken against a practitioner based solely on the quantity and/or frequency of opiates prescribed,'” both of which helped cause a jump in prescriptions.
  • How “the rise in the death rates of Medicaid patients tracks along with the state’s cost-saving decision to move many of its poorest residents to the cheapest, most potent pain reliever available: Methadone.”

See the upper right-hand sidebar for more stories from the six-month investigation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.