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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 .

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