As Drug Deaths Rise, Millions of Narcotic Prescriptions Filled

Spilled Pill Bottle

Graham Brewer

Oklahoma pharmacies filled nearly 10 million prescriptions for narcotic painkillers and other controlled dangerous substances last year, according to newly obtained state data.

Those prescriptions — an average of 68 per patient, including refills — contained 597 million doses of painkillers, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, steroids and other controlled pharmaceuticals tracked by the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program.

The statistics, provided to Oklahoma Watch in response to an open records request, show that many medical professionals do not routinely check the PMP’s online database before writing or refilling scripts. Under current law, they are not required to do so.

“The more we drill down, the more we realize that we obviously have a prescription drug problem in Oklahoma,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

“We’ve got to be aggressive in doing something to drive these numbers down.”

PillsMeanwhile, the toll from prescription drug abuse continues to rise. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, 844 Oklahomans were killed by overdoses, most of them accidental. That’s more than the 708 people killed in vehicle crashes that year.

Three out of four overdose deaths involved prescription drugs, often in combination.

The prescribing data, compiled by Weaver’s bureau, provides new insight into one of the causes of Oklahoma’s escalating prescription drug crisis.

It also provides ammunition to Gov. Mary Fallin and others who want the Legislature to take new steps this year to require more physician participation in the PMP.

“I think it’s more likely than not that we will endorse an approach that will have an element of mandatory checks of the Prescription Monitoring Program,” said Fallin’s general counsel, Steve Mullins.

“It’s a pretty high priority for the governor,” Mullins said. “She’s seen the data. It’s affecting way too many Oklahomans. It really is tearing up families.”


Leading the list of PMP prescriptions and overdose contributors are three popular pharmaceuticals: hydrocodone, an opiod painkiller sold under the brand names Lortab, Vicodin, Vicoprofen, Norco and Tussionex; oxycodone, another opiod painkiller sold as OxyContin and Percoset, and alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug marketed as Xanax.

Although the overdose rate from alprazolam is generally not high when used by itself, physicians say it can become lethal when combined with narcotic painkillers. Many overdose deaths involve a “cocktail” of more than one controlled substance, and sometimes alcohol.

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