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Painkiller prescription rates vary widely

| Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 9:48 p.m.

Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers in 2012, enough to give a bottle of the pills to every adult in the country. But your chances of ending up with those pills — and the risks that come with them — depend a lot on where you live, according to a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report, published on Tuesday, shows prescribing rates vary widely by state for drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and tramadol. The highest rates are in the Southeast, led by Alabama. Providers in that state wrote 143 prescriptions for every 100 residents, while providers in Hawaii, the state with the lowest rate, wrote 52 for every 100 people, nearly three times fewer.

Other states with very high rates include Tennessee and West Virginia; states with low rates include California and New York.

Rates of painful illness and injuries do not vary enough from place to place to explain the differences, the CDC said. Instead, high prescribing rates often reflect inappropriate uses of the drugs — which contribute to high rates of opioid painkiller overdoses, officials said.

“Overdoses from opioid narcotics are a serious problem across the country, and we know opioid overdoses tend to be highest where opioids get the highest use,” CDC director Tom Frieden noted. He said the medications “can be an important tool for doctors to use ... but they are not the answer every time someone has pain.”

Even patients who start taking the medications for legitimate reasons can become addicted. The CDC said 46 people die from prescription painkiller overdoses each day.

When states take action, overdose deaths can fall, according to a report from Florida. That state experienced skyrocketing drug overdose rates, linked to largely unregulated painkiller “pill mills” between 2003 and 2009, the report said. After a series of actions — including laws to regulate pain clinics and a prescription monitoring program — opioid overdose deaths fell 27 percent between 2010 and 2012. Deaths from oxycodone alone fell 52.1 percent.

Researchers said some of the decline might be attributed to other factors, including an abuse-resistant oxycodone formula introduced in 2010. But they said the state's progress could be instructive.

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