As the opioid crisis devastated communities across the country in the late 2000s, there were enough prescription pain pills dispensed in Montgomery County for every resident to get 38 of them each year between 2006 and 2012, according to a new Washington Post database.
During that six-year period, over 13 million pain pills flowed into Montgomery County. And the high level of legal opioid distribution in the county continued to persist: between 2015 and 2017, the residents of Montgomery County had just over 800 opioid prescriptions for every 1,000 residents, the highest opioid prescription rate in the state, according to the state Department of Health.
As Montgomery County this summer launches a new task force aimed at wrestling with the opioid problems, however, Sara Boerenko, the county's public health director, said they are setting their sights even broader.
“We are shifting from an opioid problem to an overdose problem,” Boerenko said Monday. “When we are talking about the issue in general, it's about overdose and addiction. It's not necessarily about the specific drug, it's to prevent a death.”
The county has held two meetings of its new overdose task force, supported by state funding targeting communities struggling with opioid problems, and outlined tasks for different participants to work on.
The task force consists of representatives from the Sheriff's Department and Amsterdam police, Saint Mary's Hospital, Catholic Charities, the social services commissioner, probation office, the Office of the Aging and others. In its first two meetings, Boerenko said, the task force discussed addiction issues in the community and came up with the decision to focus on overdoses more broadly than with just an opioid lens.
Different members of the task force are working on initiatives to develop needle-exchange programs, train people in recovery from addiction to work with people currently suffering from addiction, and expand trainings to use Narcan, a substance used to respond to overdose.
As more attention is paid to opioids and medical professionals continue to constrain proscribing practices, it's possible addiction and overdose problems shift to other drugs and drug combinations, Boerenko said.
Boerenko said that she and others working on drug and addiction issues in Montgomery County have seen upticks in drugs other than opioids. She said cocaine is on the rise, tranquilizers like benzodiasepeine are becoming more of a problem and that even alcohol abuse seems to be climbing.
“By taking even the words opiate and heroin out, we are looking at what this is,” she said. “It's an overdose crisis.”
A look at other counties
The Washington Post analysis based on federal DEA records recently released in ongoing litigation offers insight into just how many pain pills found their way to communities all across the country.
In counties worst hit, parts of a West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, more than 150 pills per person were distributed each year. One country topped 200 pain pills per person per year, according to the Post.
In New York, Sullivan County marked the highest density of pain pills between 2006 and 2012, with the country average 50 pain pills per resident distributed each year during that time period.
In the Capital Region, Fulton and Scoharie counties both averaged distribution of 32 pain pills per resident each year; Saratoga County averaged distribution of 27 pills per person each year; Schenectady County averaged 25 pills per person; and Albany county averaged 24 pills per person.
The database also includes a breakdown of where the opioid pills were distributed and from what manufacturer they originated.