Study: Some Medicaid recipients who overdosed on opioids were prescribed with more opioids

New research from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggets the total number of opioid-related deaths may be underestimated. There were an estimated 33,000 opioid-related deaths in the US in 2015, officials say.

A new study shows some Medicaid recipients in Pennsylvania who overdosed on opioids were still prescribed opioids after their overdose.

The findings from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health were an analysis of more than 6,000 Pennsylvanians from 2008 to 2013 who had either overdosed on heroin or prescription opioids.

In the case of heroin overdose, 43 percent of those patients had been taking opioids prior to the overdose, and just under 40 percent continued taking the opioids afterward, the study found.

For those who overdosed on prescription opioids, 66 percent were taking the drugs beforehand, and just under 60 percent were still prescribed with opioids afterward.

“Our findings signal a relatively weak health system response to a potentially life-threatening event,” Dr. Julie Donohue, the study’s lead author, said in a news release. “However, they also point to opportunities for interventions that could prevent future overdoses in a particularly vulnerable population.”

The study points to a time period when there was less of a focus on the opioid crisis, as healthcare providers and intervention services pivot toward quicker response to opioid addiction.

“We definitely see a lot of major changes going on with how doctors are prescribing medications, and also even just their attempts of maintaining a pain-free lifestyle for these people,” said Matthew Null, a referral development manager with Gaudenzia.

Some of those efforts include pill-counting by doctors, urine testing, medical records analysis to prevent patients from trying to get prescriptions from multiple doctors, and what are known as “warm handoffs” by local hospitals.

“Rather than just giving somebody a phone number and be like ‘Hey, here you go, call them, good luck to you,’ we have someone now in place, right there to speak with them to answer any questions and get them directly to the help,” Null said.

Gaudenzia says it will take part in several events in commemoration of National Recovery Month in September to raise awareness about substance abuse disorders.