Coroner: Baton Rouge could see record year for opioid deaths

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Two-thirds of the respondents in a Yahoo/Marist poll released Monday, April 17, 2017, said opioid drugs such as Vicodin or OxyContin are "riskier" to use than pot, even when the pain pills are prescribed by a doctor. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) – Doctors prescribe them as a way to treat pain. But opioids — and overdoses on them — are causing pain of another kind in and around Baton Rouge.

East Baton Rouge Parish coroner Beau Clark told the Press Club of Baton Rouge Monday that, so far this year, 53 parish residents have died of opiate overdoses. That’s on track to surpass last year’s record of 89 overdose deaths, a stark difference from 28 in 2012.

“We’ve seen cases as young as 17 to 18 years old,” Clark said. “We’ve seen retirees. We’ve seen rich people. We’ve seen poor people. We’ve seen people in every part of this parish, I can tell you.”

The class of drugs includes morphine, methadone, hydrocodone and oxycodone, available by prescription. Other opiates, namely heroin and fentanyl, are accessible only on the black market.

The crisis regarding abuse of opioids has also impacted Louisiana’s hard-labor industries. Roughly 85 percent of injured workers on pain medication received the drugs from 2012 to 2014, and one in six got them on a long-term basis.

The rise in overdose deaths correlates with more opioid prescriptions across Louisiana. For every 100 state residents, there are 122 prescriptions; only five other states have a higher prescription ratio. Clark says the problem starts in the doctor’s office, where medical professionals often ask patients for a so-called “fifth vital sign,” a pain scale of one to 10, to describe the discomfort they’re in.

“We continually have to ask for this subjective number,” said Clark. “Why? Because at the end of the day, [doctors] were going to respond to it, which might mean a prescription for opiates.”

But Clark is praising state lawmakers, who made bills curbing opioid abuse among the more successful items at this year’s legislative session.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has backed House Bill 192, sponsored by state Reps. Helena Moreno (D-New Orleans) and Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge), which would limit first-time prescriptions of opioids for acute pain to a seven-day supply, down from the current 30-day limit. (It would not apply to prescriptions for chronic pain, cancer or palliative care.) That bill takes effect August 1.

The governor has also signed Senate Bill 55 by Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), which will require doctors and other prescribers to consult a statewide prescription database starting January 1, 2018.

Clark hopes the new laws will help Louisianans avoid addiction, though he thinks East Baton Rouge Parish and Louisiana at large have plenty more work to do.

“We also have to consider the other side of how to treat those currently addicted,” he said.

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