Capitol Week in Review

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Last year, 426 Arkansas residents died from a drug overdose, according to death certificates filed with the state health department. That is an increase in fatal drug overdoses from 2017, when 417 people in Arkansas died from drugs.

The data is from the most recent annual report issued by the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which is administered by the health department.

The program was created by the legislature in 2011 to curtail the rapidly growing abuse of controlled substances, such as painkillers and opioids. Since 2011 the legislature has steadily expanded the program’s reach.

Under state law, every time a controlled substance is dispensed to an individual, it must be reported to the monitoring program within seven days. In 2017, the legislature made it mandatory for prescribing physicians to check with the program before prescribing opioids and controlled substances.

Law enforcement, medical fraud investigators and authorities from the military and other states can access the data in the Arkansas Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. Early this year, the number of users who have access to the program went over 20,000 for the first time.

One goal is to reduce “doctor shopping” by people who abuse prescription drugs. The practice is defined as visiting multiple physicians in order to obtain numerous prescriptions for the same drug.

The program flags instances of “doctor shopping” if a patient sees five doctors and goes to five pharmacies within a 90 day period, all in order to purchase the same drug. In large part due to the flagging of this form of abuse, since the beginning of 2017, Arkansas has seen an 80 percent decrease in “doctor shopping.”

Arkansas shares data with 34 other states that also have a prescription drug monitoring program. Importantly, Missouri does not have a program and does not share data with Arkansas. All of our other neighboring states share information on prescription drugs, however.

The number of queries by law enforcement usually ranges from 180 to 190 per quarter. The number of queries from boards that license physicians, nurses and other health professionals, will vary to a greater degree, for instance, from 30 or 40 or 50 per quarter.

Queries from physicians, pharmacists and health care professionals average about 19,000 a month.

Opioids were the most widely prescribed drug in Arkansas in 2018, with 3.2 million prescriptions ordered and more than 186 million pills sold. That is a decrease from 2016, when 236 million opioid pills were sold in Arkansas.

Opioids treat pain and include hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine.

The second most sold controlled drugs in Arkansas in 2018 were prescriptions for anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms. The drugs include Xanax and Valium. More than 1.7 million prescriptions, equaling 86 million pills, were sold.

Stimulants ranked third in the top-selling list. This category includes drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. In 2018, more than 762,000 prescriptions were ordered, totaling 26 million pills.

From 120,000 to 130,000 Arkansans were considered chronic users of opioids in 2018 because they received 90 days’ worth of medication in a 180-day period, with gaps between usages of less than 30 days.