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Prescription overdose deaths drop again in Washington


Drug overdose deaths are on the decline across Washington, at least when it comes to prescription painkillers.

Those pills have been under scrutiny since overdose deaths rose dramatically starting in 1998. They reached a peak in 2008, killing more than 500 people that year.

Now, the deaths have dropped for three years in a row, with 407 deaths in 2011 attributed to overdoses of painkillers, called opiates, according to data released by the Washington Department of Health.

The state started reforming its prescription drug policies around 2007, beginning with agencies that pay for low-income health-care and workers compensation.

"We can't point to just one thing we have done and say, 'This is the reason we have this outcome.' It's been a number of things over time," says Dr. Maxine Hayes, State Health Officer at the Department of Health.

Doctors have been told to rein-in their prescriptions for painkillers. Those include popular brands such as Vicodin and Oxycontin.

It appears the deaths might correlate with a drop in the number of pills prescribed, according to Caleb Banta-Green at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington. The state just launched a computer database of painkiller prescriptions about a year ago.

A single painkiller – methadone – accounts for half the deaths. Washington has the highest rate of methadone prescribing in the nation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and methadone is one of the most difficult painkillers for patients to manage safely.

Other efforts focus on people who take opiates for ongoing chronic pain, and converting them to lower doses. A controversial state law took effect in 2011 that requires scrutiny for anyone on high-dose prescriptions.

Fewer opiates, more heroin -- there's a reason

"I am encouraged by the overdose deaths coming down, but I just want people to know that we are not out of the woods," says Dr. Hayes.

Painkillers are still the number one cause of overdose deaths.

However, heroin overdoses are rising dramatically, and there's likely a connection to the painkillers, says Banta-Green. Once someone gets addicted to prescription opiates, they typically have a lifetime problem. Many end up desperate and injecting heroin, a related drug.

If you happen to witness someone overdosing, you might be able to save that person's life. Tips are available from a University of Washington project called Stop Overdose.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.