BOISE – Prescriptions for oxycodone-based drugs – the highly effective pain relievers often called “hillbilly heroin” because of their potential for abuse – have increased 575 percent in Idaho between 1997 and 2005, according to numbers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Some doctors say the increase simply represents a medical trend toward better pain management in seriously injured or ill patients. Some pharmacists say oxycodone abusers are shopping around until they find a doctor who will prescribe them the powerful drug.
And some addiction specialists say Idaho’s demographic profile is partly to blame – that in a state where many of the residents are members of the alcohol, caffeine and nicotine-shunning Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, doctor-prescribed pain relievers offer a chance at a legitimized high.
Gay Yow, an alcohol and drug abuse counselor at The Walker Center, an inpatient facility in Gooding, Idaho, said the number of painkiller-addicted patients being treated by the center has nearly doubled in recent years, nearly eclipsing the number of methamphetamine addicts at the center.
“For the last few years we’ve had a lot of LDS people coming in for treatment of prescription pills,” she said. “It’s not considered taboo to take medications from a doctor. They don’t drink; they take prescription pills.”
The numbers from the Drug Enforcement Agency show the biggest jump in oxycodone sales occurred in Eastern Idaho, a heavily Mormon region. Between 1997 and 2005, prescription sales of oxycodone in the region including Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rexburg and Salmon jumped more than 1,200 percent. An aging population in that region does not appear to be to blame – the median age of those purchasing the medications hovered in the late 20s and early 30s, according to the agency.
Though the prescriptions are often legal, Yow said, addicts may resort to trickery to get the drugs.
One man came to The Walker Center with only a few teeth, Yow said.
Addicted to prescription painkillers, the man kept going to dentists, complaining of severe tooth pain. Each time, the dentist would pull the offending tooth and give him a prescription for a heavy-duty painkiller to take as he recovered. For the addict, losing a healthy tooth seemed a small price to pay to get the drug he so desperately needed, Yow said.
“You get people who will actually harm themselves, break bones on purpose and stuff like that,” she said. “One kid kept complaining that his side was aching so he could get the meds. He ended up getting an appendectomy, and he didn’t have anything wrong with his appendix.”
Mike Merrill, the vice chairman of the Idaho Board of Pharmacy and a pharmacist at Mike’s Pharmacy in Idaho Falls, believes that oxycodone may be the most-often abused drug in his region. Like other pharmacies in Idaho, Merrill’s business often reports painkiller prescriptions to a statewide database to catch abusers who may be getting similar prescriptions from more than one doctor and filling them at more than one pharmacy.
“We’re checking people all the time to make sure they’re not doctor shopping. We can request a printout of where you’ve purchased medications in Idaho,” he said.
But the system has a few problems – it can take up to six weeks to access the data, and not all of Idaho’s neighboring states participate in the tracking system. That allows a prescription drug abuser to fill some prescriptions in Idaho and some in Washington to avoid being flagged by Idaho’s tracking system, he said.
But Bob Seehusen, the chief executive officer of the Idaho Medical Association, said there’s a legitimate reason for the increase in Idaho’s painkiller prescriptions.
“There’s been more and more education given to physicians on the appropriate use of pain management substances,” he said.
In the past, doctors would often leave pain untreated or under-treated, he said. But several years ago medical studies began showing that patients needed more treatment to deal with pain, and the profession responded by prescribing more painkillers, he said.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Seehusen said. “We’re doing a better job and managing pain and extending people’s lives. But there’s a very fine line – when is someone that’s in extended, severe pain starting to get addicted to the medication?”