Westmoreland coroner says 2015 overdoses up 44 percent from 2014

Naloxone, photographed at the The Medicine Shoppe in Latrobe on Jan. 4, 2016. Naloxone is a drug that can counter the lethal effects of an overdose of opioids.
Naloxone, photographed at the The Medicine Shoppe in Latrobe on Jan. 4, 2016. Naloxone is a drug that can counter the lethal effects of an overdose of opioids.
Photo by Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Paul Peirce
| Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, 11:45 p.m.

A grim forecast Westmoreland County officials made last spring has proven accurate: drug-related deaths during 2015 set another record.

Coroner Ken Bacha reported Monday his office anticipates when records become official they will show 125 overdose deaths last year, a 44 percent spike over the previous record of 87 in 2014.

“Throughout last year, we held a steady pace. And, unfortunately, it doesn't presently show any signs of slowing down,” Bacha said.

The coroner said his office already was called to investigate two overdose deaths on Sunday and Monday — the first of 2016.

Hempfield has surpassed Unity and Derry townships as the community where the most overdose deaths occurred last year, Bacha said. The coroner's office reported 12 deaths occurred in Hempfield, while Greensburg had 11 and Derry Township had 10. Seven occurred in both Latrobe and Monessen.

Bacha and Dirk Matson, co-chairman of the county's drug overdose task force, have predicted for months that Westmoreland was on a record pace for fatal overdoses and estimated the total would fall between 120 and 130 deaths.

Matson said it was a prediction no one wanted to see come to fruition.

“It is certainly disappointing,” Matson said. “It's just like a dose of cold water splashing on your face and is an indication there is a lot of hard work ahead.”

The leading cause of overdose deaths was tied to prescription painkillers, with 69 confirmed by toxicology tests. The second-highest cause was heroin with 48 deaths. There were 42 people who overdosed on antidepressants.

The epidemic of drug-related deaths in the past decade prompted county officials to form the drug overdose task force in 2013, whose goal was to reduce the number of deaths by 25 percent by 2019. Matson believes the goal remains attainable, but there is much work to be done.

Bacha doesn't believe the deadly epidemic will subside until laws and regulations are implemented to curb “doctor shopping,” when a person goes to multiple doctors to obtain the prescription pain medications.

Many people first become addicted to prescription drugs, but move on to heroin because it is cheaper and stronger, according to a 2014 report by a group of leading experts formed by U.S. Attorney David Hickton.

Matson believes improved training is needed for physicians who prescribe pain medications like oxycodone.

The state budget impasse has delayed planned expansion of the state prescription monitoring data base, he said. The new law would expand a limited, existing state database to include many common prescription drugs. By accessing the database, health advocates say doctors and pharmacists would be better able to stop patients from getting prescriptions from multiple sources.

Matson remains hopeful that the availability of Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, will impact the numbers. The availability of Narcan was so limited this year that it had a minimal impact, he said.

Fatal overdoses are a statewide epidemic. The Pennsylvania State Coroners' Association reported that 2,489 people died from drug-related causes in 2014, a 20 percent increase over 2013.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com

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