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Valley drug deaths outpace past 2 years

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 12:26 a.m.

Drug overdose deaths in the Alle-Kiski Valley are on pace to eclipse totals from the past two years.

In the first six months of this year, county coroners say almost 200 people in the four-county area have died as a result of illegal or prescription drug overdoses.

Drug deaths account for almost 67 percent of the 162 accidental deaths in Allegheny County.

The Medical Examiner's Office says the rate of deaths — 108 so far this year — is well on its way to equal or exceed the 278 drug deaths for all of 2013 unless something happens to stop the dying.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates for every drug overdose death, there are 25 to 50 near misses.

And the death rate for this year isn't encouraging in Westmoreland, Butler and Armstrong counties, either, despite increased drug education and police work.

Westmoreland County so far has 41 fatal overdoses with another eight suspected drugs deaths pending toxicology reports. Those include 19 deaths attributed to heroin, one to cocaine and 21 others who overdosed on prescription medicine.

“It's almost 50-50 now,” Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha said of heroin versus prescription drugs. “We were about two-thirds prescription drugs and one-third heroin. Heroin use is up now.”

Bacha believes a law enforcement crackdown tightened the prescription medication market, so addicts are turning to heroin — a cheaper, equally potent and often deadly alternative.

“Pills are just tougher to get,” he said. “People are going to heroin sooner.”

The Butler County Coroner's office reports 21 drug deaths for the first six months plus four suspected drug deaths. Seven of those deaths were heroin-related.

Coroner William F. Young III said, at that rate, Butler County easily will pass it's total of 30 drug-related deaths from last year.

Armstrong County Coroner Brian K. Myers posted seven drugs deaths and one pending drug death — all from heroin overdoses — for the first six months of 2014. There were 13 drug deaths there last year.

“This is not a good trend,” Myers said.

National studies show misuse of medicine happens regularly across the country.

Every day, on average, 46 people in the United States die from an overdose of prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

And the rates are skyrocketing.

The CDC said there has been a whopping 400 percent increase in prescription pill deaths in women since 1999 and a 265 percent increase among men.

The Pittsburgh Poison Center of UPMC received about 130 calls from hospitals in just the past five weeks regarding drug overdoses, said Dr. Michael Lynch, the center's medical director.

The center gets about 3,500 calls a month, so 130 calls seems like a drop in the bucket. But the number includes some calls about toddler or infant poisoning by illegal drugs or medicines such as OxyContin or Suboxone.

OxyContin is a painkiller. Suboxone can be used to treat pain and to help addicts get off opiates.

Fighting the trend

Even if parents are vigilant, children sometimes pick up pills that drop from pockets, medicine cabinets or purses onto the floor.

“Suboxone can be particularly dangerous because it dissolves in the mouth and doesn't need to be chewed by a child,” Lynch said.The Westmoreland County Drug Task Force and the Pennsylvania and U.S. Attorney's Offices in Pittsburgh created groups to study the problem and draft recommendations for reducing the death rate.

While the Westmoreland task force has been studying the problem for nearly a year, it isn't yet effective.

Task force member Dirk Matson, county director of human services, said the group has a public awareness campaign and a website,, to hammer home the dangers of drug abuse, as well as a curriculum for physicians about proper prescribing practices.

“It may take a while to sink in,” Matson said.

Meanwhile, Westmoreland County Drug and Alcohol Commission Inc. hired a mobile case manager to offer immediate treatment services to overdose patients in hospital emergency rooms. A drug detoxification unit is set to open next year at Excela Health Frick Hospital in Mt. Pleasant that will be run by Gateway Rehabilitation of Beaver County.

Gary Tennis, state secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said he is working to get addicts into treatment programs instead of jail because it is less expensive and a more effective deterrent.

“The problem will continue for some time,” Tennis said. “It's going to take us years.”

Attorney General Kathleen Kane said her office created a database containing 1,100 names used to brand individual doses of heroin, called stamp bags. Agents are using the brand name to track where heroin is being sold and who is selling it.

“This is a war,” Kane said.

Staggering cost

Pennsylvania alone expects to spend more than half a billion dollars on the state's drug problem next year.

The proposed 2014-15 state budget calls for $41.7 million for drug treatment programs and $35.5 million for drug law enforcement. Another $439 million is slated for inpatient and outpatient treatment under Medicaid, including methadone clinics and other addiction treatment services.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at

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