ShareThis Page

Pennsylvania to review fatal drug overdoses linked to methadone

| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Pennsylvania will begin to review fatal drug overdoses linked to methadone, which is prescribed by physicians to ease the symptoms of heroin and opiate withdrawal, and as a painkiller that is sometimes sold illegally, according to law enforcement.

Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday named nine people to the new Methadone Death and Incident Review Team, which will investigate the circumstances of methadone-related deaths.

Gary Tennis, secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said the review team will gather data about the use and abuse of methadone, a synthetic narcotic similar to morphine.

“While we know methadone-assisted treatment plays a significant role in Pennsylvania's treatment delivery systems, we've encountered broad public concern about the number of methadone-related deaths and serious incidents occurring in the commonwealth,” Tennis said in a statement.

Tennis' office could not provide specific numbers of methadone-related deaths.

“Part of the impetus for creating the team is to pull this information together to gauge the depth of the problem,” said Christine Cronkright, a Corbett spokeswoman.

A number of methadone overdose deaths have been tied to prescriptions for pain relief, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Although methadone accounts for 2 percent of all painkiller prescriptions, it has been responsible for 30 percent of all overdose deaths, according to the CDC. The study showed that deaths from methadone abuse increased more than five times in a 10-year period between 1999 and 2009.

Detective Tony Marcocci, an investigator with the Westmoreland County District Attorney's Office, said the increase in methadone abuse has been linked to its use as a painkiller.

“Since no one wants to have a methadone clinic in their back yard, doctors have been able to get around that by opening pain clinics,” he said.

Methadone was designed to treat heroin addicts by easing withdrawal symptoms, blocking the euphoric effect of heroin and reducing the craving for opiates. Addicts must take the drug daily or they will suffer painful withdrawal symptoms.

While pain clinics legally dispense methadone, Marcocci said the drug often is diverted and sold illegally on the street.

Court records and coroner's reports reflect the problem:

• State drug agents last year arrested 44 people in Blair County as part of a prescription drug ring. Methadone was among the drugs they allegedly sold.

• In 2010, agents arrested a Lawrence County physician they described as the biggest prescriber of pain medication in the state. He wrote 2.1 million prescriptions per year, including methadone.

• In Westmoreland County, where fatal overdoses are at a record high, seven deaths last year were linked to methadone, according to Coroner Ken Bacha.

• Aaron Sandak of Indiana County last year pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and delivery of drug resulting in death for giving methadone to a friend while she was receiving morphine for hip and shoulder injuries. The woman died after taking the methadone. Sandak is serving one to five years in state prison, according to court records.

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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.