Westmoreland drug deaths outpace 2013's record rate

| Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

Drug overdose deaths could set a record this year in Westmoreland County, where heroin has again surpassed prescription painkillers as the leading cause, Coroner Ken Bacha said.

The county recorded 86 drug-related deaths in 2013 and is on target to hit about 100 in 2014 and the sixth consecutive record, Bacha said.

Of the 49 overdose deaths this year, 19 were caused by heroin. The coroner believes four of eight pending cases involve heroin. He determined that 21 died of prescription drugs and one death involved cocaine.

“It's almost 50-50 now,” 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 has tightened the prescription medication market, so addicts are turning to heroin, a cheaper and equally potent alternative.

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

Attorney Tom Plaitano, a Westmoreland County Drug Task Force member, operates methadone clinics in Greensburg and Blairsville. He noted the local efforts to reduce prescription drug diversion have simply accelerated the transition to heroin.

“Being the opportunists that they are, heroin dealers have been ramping up production waiting for this to occur,” Plaitano said.

The state and U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh have set up task forces to study the problem and draft recommendations for reducing the death rate, which experts call a national public health issue.

While a Westmoreland task force has been studying the problem for nearly a year, officials said 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, getinWestmoreland.org, 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. has hired a mobile case manager to offer immediate treatment services to overdose patients in hospital emergency rooms. A drug detoxification unit set to open next year at Excela Health Frick Hospital in Mt. Pleasant 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.

Pennsylvania allocates millions of dollars for treatment every year.

A proposed 2014-15 state budget appropriates $41.7 million for drug treatment through the secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs and $35.5 million for drug law enforcement and local drug task forces through Kane's office. An additional $439 million is slated for inpatient and outpatient treatment under Medicaid, including methadone clinics and other addiction treatment services.

Other states are spending more to stem the tide of addiction.

In January, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State speech to the “full-blown heroin crisis” there. Dr. Henry Chen, Vermont's health commissioner, said Shumlin appropriated $8 million on top of the $30 million a year it spends on addiction to provide “treatment on demand.” He said the extra money will halve waiting lists for treatment programs and double the capacity of methadone and suboxone clinics.

With only 626,000 residents, Vermont now budgets nearly $61 per person on treatment annually, while Pennsylvania spends less than $8.

Chen said it's too early to judge Vermont's approach.

“There are times I feel we're swimming against the tide,” he said. “It's going to take some time.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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