Arizona's Opioid Death Rate Still Climbing

By Will Stone
Published: Wednesday, August 8, 2018 - 5:45pm
Updated: Thursday, August 9, 2018 - 1:30pm
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Deaths from opioid overdoses continue to rise in Arizona. 

In 2017, 949 people died from opioids according to state numbers released this month. That marks a 20 percent increase from the year before.

About a third of the deaths last year were due to heroin.

In June 2017, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared the increase in overdose deaths a public health emergency. Health officials have closely tracked overdoses and pursued interventions to reign in the number of pills doctors are prescribing, as well as expand access to addiction treatment.

The effort culminated in state lawmakers passing the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act in January.

“This epidemic didn’t start overnight. It’s going to take a while to reverse the trend,” said Dr. Cara Christ, director of Arizona Department of Health Services.

“While we may not have impacted the deaths, a lot of the data in this report show we are having successes here in Arizona."

Christ’s agency reports about a 40 percent reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions filled and dispensed in the state since June 2017.

Hospitals are referring about 30 percent more patients to behavioral health services than a year ago. Meanwhile, pharmacies are dispensing more of the overdose reversal drug Naloxone than ever before.

The report doesn’t provide much detail about the highly potent opioid fentanyl, which has devastated communities across the country especially in New England and the Midwest.

Deaths from synthetic opioids rose more than 60 percent in Arizona between 2015 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MORE: CDC: Fentanyl Deaths Rise In Arizona, Nationally

Many of the opioid overdoses in Arizona involved multiple drugs — often methamphetamines and benzodiazepines.  

Christ’s agency aims to reduce opioid overdoses by 25 percent in the next five years.

Many of the state’s initiatives and efforts just took effect earlier this year. Some provisions don’t start until 2019. Christ doesn't expect the impact of those new policies will be reflected in the death rate till at least next year if not longer.

In the coming months, ADHS plans to launch a chronic pain self-management program much like the agency’s program for diabetes.

“The department is looking at chronic pain as a public health issue,” Christ said.

Through social media and advertising, the agency will try to drive more people to its website, which has resources about living with chronic pain.

“It gives them tools to become engaged in their health care, to know how to talk to their providers, to know how to work with their health care team and to self-manage their disease,” Christ said.

Since Arizona’s law passed, many doctors have curtailed prescribing of opioids because of new regulations. Some chronic pain patients say they no longer can get their medication, as KJZZ and NPR recently reported.

Chronic pain is the most common pre-existing physical condition among those who overdose in Arizona.

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