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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Attorney General Greg Zoeller and Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner, discuss the dangers of prescription drug abuse Wednesday.

Rx drugs cited in overdose deaths

Health officials see surge in prescription med abuse

There were 29 deaths caused by drug overdoses in Allen County last year, and all but four of those deaths involved prescription drugs.

Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner, shared this statistic Wednesday while supporting new initiatives with Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to combat prescription drug abuse.

“Every 25 minutes someone dies from a prescription drug overdose,” a recently erected billboard in the Fort Wayne area says, a message reiterated Wednesday by McMahan and Zoeller during a news conference.

Zoeller and McMahan are part of a statewide task force aimed at slowing the growing dilemma of prescription drug abuse.

A new proposal, Senate Bill 246, would direct the Medical Licensing Board to adopt rules for prescribing practices for drug and pain medication.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that people – especially young adults and teenagers – think prescription drugs are “safe” because the drugs were prescribed by a doctor, McMahan said.

But they are not taking their own prescriptions, she said. Most young people raid the pills from the medicine cabinets of parents, grandparents or relatives, McMahan said.

While there is a need for pain control, particularly in cases of cancer and other debilitating diseases, McMahan said, prescribing drugs should be done through a comprehensive and responsible set of guidelines.

And alternative treatments for pain relief should not be overlooked, she said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription drugs are now accountable for more deaths in the United States than street drugs such as heroin and cocaine, McMahan said.

Allen County is no exception.

“This is a major health issue, but it also has a negative economic effect, as well,” McMahan said. “How many pharmacy robberies have we seen in the area in the last year?”

Opium-based medications such as hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl – commonly known as Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan and Opana – are addictive if misused or taken in excessive doses, according to the website

Another popular prescription drug, methadone, is responsible for nearly one-third of the nation’s deaths from prescription drug overdoses, according to the CDC. Drug overdoses nationwide have more than tripled since 1990, the agency reports.

At pharm parties, where young people bring and share prescription drugs, the pills are usually ingested a handful at a time, and mixing pills can be deadly, according to McMahan. Combining drugs such as Xanax, Klonipin or Valium with any kind of opiate painkiller increases the risk of respiratory depression and overdose.

Opiates work by creating and releasing artificial endorphins in the brain, which induces good feelings. But, with regular use, the brain stops making the endorphins and the only way the user can experience the same feeling is to continue taking the drugs.

To top it off, young people often add alcohol to the mix of pills they are ingesting, which can be a deadly combination, McMahan said.

“The average age of addiction is 15,” she said,” and prescription pills rival marijuana in terms and frequency of use.”

When someone dies of an overdose, there is no sure way to tell where the drugs came from, she said.

“The death certificate just shows the mixture of drugs that were present in the person’s body,” she said.

Although the task force was already established when Zoeller filed a complaint last month against Fort Wayne pain doctor William Hedrick for overprescribing pain medications, it helped bring the issue to the forefront, he said.

No charges have been filed, but Hedrick, president of the Centers for Pain Relief in northeast Indiana, is facing discipline from the state’s medical licensing board. The complaint alleges some of Hedrick’s patients have died from multiple drug toxicities. His license has been temporarily suspended.

A shocking string of prescription overdoses and deaths in young adults and teens in 2011 in southern Indiana’s Scott County helped kick start the task force, Zoeller said.

The coroner of that county stepped down after investigating dozens of overdoses and finding the bodies of young people, most of whom were aged 18 to 30.

The task force has no plans to try to regulate pharmaceutical companies, Zoeller said.

“The proper approach is to look at those who are licensed to prescribe drugs,” he said.

The task force is working on comprehension, awareness and regulation, McMahan added.

“We also want uniform standards and screening tools in place,” she said.

Indiana already has the INSPECT – Indiana Scheduled Prescription Electronic Collection and Tracking – program, which works well, McMahan said.

The system coordinates with Indiana pharmacies to monitor patients and prescriptions, the practitioner who wrote the prescriptions and the dispensing pharmacy where the patient obtained them.

The bill is set to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Health and Provider Services.