WHEELING - West Virginia had the second highest prescription pain pill overdose death rate in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC study revealed the Mountain State had nearly 26 fatal overdoses for every 100,000 residents that year. West Virginia trailed only New Mexico, with 27, and more than doubled the national average of 11.9. Neighboring states Ohio and Pennsylvania averaged 15 deaths in the same year.
Painkillers like Oxycontin, Vicodin and methadone are prescribed to treat severe, chronic pain in patients suffering from maladies such as cancer and extensive nerve damage, said Ohio Valley Medical Center Pharmacy Director Michelle Heath. When abused, however, those pills can be highly addictive.
Photo by Shelley Hanson
West Virginia had nearly 26 fatal prescription pain pill overdoses for every 100,000 residents in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Anytime you use a pain relieving drug when you don't have pain, you unlock its addictive potential," she said.
Nearly 6 percent of West Virginians 12 years old or older abused prescription pain pills between 2008-09, according to the CDC, compared to 5.5 percent in Ohio and 4.1 percent in Pennsylvania.
Law enforcement agencies in the Ohio Valley and nationwide are taking efforts to ensure prescriptions in a home's medicine cabinet do not fall into the wrong hands. Prescription take back events provide individuals with an opportunity to hand over old or unused prescriptions for proper disposal.
Heath said the state now uses an electronic database that tracks prescription drugs. Medical officials can reference that database before issuing prescriptions, reducing the potential for drug abuse.
Many pain pills, however, are obtained and distributed within multiple states and jurisdictions. The study also showed that Florida, a state notorious for "pill mills," led the rate of pain pills sold in the United States last year with 12.6 grams sold for every 10,000 residents.
Multiple defendants in an ongoing case in U.S. District Court in Wheeling were alleged to have traveled to Florida pain clinics, where they would "doctor shop," visiting multiple clinics and obtaining various prescription pills, mostly oxycodone. Those pills were then transported back to the Ohio Valley and repackaged for distribution locally. Law enforcement estimates the organization is responsible for the illegal distribution of more than 100,000 prescription pills.
U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II said prescription pill trafficking is the number one problem facing law enforcement in the Northern District of West Virginia because of the crimes that stem the illegal sale of painkillers. Addicts commit robberies and invade homes to fund habits, while a litany of crimes are committed while users are under the influence.
Joshua David Kenny was arrested after he attempted to rob the Medicine Shoppe in Fulton in July, forcing his way behind the pharmacy counter demanding opiates and narcotics.
Ihlenfeld believes federal authorities have recognized the prescription pill epidemic in West Virginia, however, and said he is working to add more resources to the fight against pill trafficking on the state and local level.