TRAVERSE CITY — More than 29.3 million prescription pain pills — oxycodone and hydrocodone — were supplied to Grand Traverse County from 2006 to 2012.
Across the five-county region that number rises to more than 46 million of the highly-addictive pain pills and in Michigan, to 2.9 billion.
The information comes from data released by the Washington Post after the newspaper sued to unseal Drug Enforcement Administration records generated by a system that tracks every pain pill supplied to pharmacies in the country.
It’s a lot of pills, but Pamela Lynch, director of Harm Reduction Michigan, said the number of prescriptions in the county is not the issue.
“We need to be looking at addiction as a broader issue,” Lynch said. “Until we figure out how to reduce demand people who can’t get what they need to get will switch to something else.”
Harm Reduction offers treatment for addiction and support for the recovering person.
Lynch has seen people turn to heroin, alcohol and even methamphetamine when their supply of pain pills dries up.
“We unfortunately have not handled the opioid crisis well and now we have a methamphetamine crisis,” Lynch said.
Oxycodone, sold under names including Percodan, Oxycontin and more, and hydrocodone, sold under names including Norco, Vicodin and more, make up about 75 percent of all opioid pills sent to pharmacies, according to the Washington Post’s data.
The high numbers of pain pills that were prescribed with little monitoring helped to create an opioid epidemic in this country, with the numbers of overdose deaths climbing steadily each year over the last couple of decades.
But newly-released information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a decline in overdose deaths for the first time in about 20 years.
Deaths in 2018 were 67,744, according to the CDC – about a 5 percent drop from the 70,699 deaths in 2017.
The drop is mostly because of a decrease in deaths from Oxycodone and hydrocodone, CDC data shows, while overdose deaths from heroin and fentanyl are on the rise.
Julie Moore, a physician assistant with Addiction Treatment Services in Traverse City, said the decrease is likely because of implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) that track controlled substance prescriptions in a state.
The data cited by the Washington Post is from a seven-year time period before the laws began to change, Moore said.
“All the providers are working under much stricter laws than they were during that time frame,” Moore said.
ATS treats people with substance use disorder. More than 2.1 million people in the U.S. have the disorder, according to a report by the National Safety Council.
“When people who are addicted to prescription opiates get cut off from their doctor they take to the streets,” Moore said.
She likens it to playing Whac-a-mole.
“So now you’ve got increases in heroin and fentanyl deaths,” Moore said. “So what’s next? Addiction has been around forever. How do you get rid of that?”
Greg Thompson, owner of Thompson Pharmacy in Traverse City, said the monitoring of opioids being prescribed has had an unwanted effect.
“It’s an arbitrary reaction that doesn’t make any sense,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of legitimate uses for opioids.”
Many older people who have chronic pain and have been taking the medications without abusing them for many years now find themselves having to jump through hoops to get them, Thompson said.
Insurance companies are getting in on things by refusing to cover more than a small supply at a time or not paying for them at all, he said.
Lynch said she knows a lot of people who have a legitimate need for opioids and can’t get them anymore.
“We need to get at the root of addiction and not worry about one substance or another,” Lynch said.