While opioid addiction remains a crisis in Erie County and all across America, a new report shows a positive trend in the ongoing fight. The Medicaid Inspector General indicates that an addictive opioid that often leads to heroin and fentanyl use is no longer the top painkiller prescribed by doctors in the county.
Since 2008, hydrocodone was ranked as the leading painkiller prescription. This year, according to Medicaid Inspector General Michael Szukala's annual report, hydrocodone ranks second behind ibuprofen.
"When we first saw the drop, which was in the first quarter of 2016, the County Executive and I discussed this. We thought it might be due to a number of things," Szukala said. "A prominent doctor's pain clinic had closed, or we thought perhaps it was just an aberration. But no, it's statistically valid and the drop is significant."
Szukala credits two developments for the decline in hydrocodone prescriptions. One is a set of reforms approved earlier this year by Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders. The reforms include training for doctors that Szukala suggests has increased the appreciation for the addictive power of opioids.
He also credits I-STOP, the program that allows doctors to learn online whether a patient approaching them for painkillers has also attempted to acquire them elsewhere.
"That second doctor would know instantaneously, the moment they logged on to the system, that you had asked for pain medication from another doctor earlier that day," Szukala said. "That doesn't mean you wouldn't get it. People lose medication, and sometimes people are robbed. But nevertheless, the doctor would be aware of what happened. Just the fact the doctor is aware of what's happened has caused the number of hydrocodone prescriptions and a number of other painkiller prescriptions to drop dramatically."
Earlier this year Erie County officials were projecting a sharp increase in opioid-related deaths. Amidst a surge in fatal overdoses early in the year, County Executive Mark Poloncarz had anticipated the possibility of several hundred deaths this year. Szukala says the decrease in hydrocodone prescriptions this year should, in turn, lower the total number of opioid-related deaths in 2016 significantly.
The new trend in prescriptions is part of a broader report released every year by the Medicaid Inspector General that measures Medicare distribution throughout Erie County.