Thanks to two newspapers that fought to access government data, it’s now possible to see in grim detail how the opioid epidemic metastasized across the nation.
An analysis of the information released this week raises deeply disturbing questions that demand high-profile congressional hearings. Was the federal government monitoring the growing use and abuse of these addictive prescription painkillers? Could officials and the industry have intervened sooner to stop this public health crisis?
Consumers may not realize it, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintains a database detailing the path every prescription pill takes from its manufacturer to the drugstore where it’s dispensed.
The DEA and drug industry fought to keep the information under wraps, but the Washington Post and owner of the Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va., prevailed in the legal fight. That led to this week’s release of the alarming analysis of oxycodone and hydrocodone shipments from 2006 to 2012.
The two medications are widely used forms of opioid painkillers. More than 76 billion pills were distributed in the period studied, and the county-by-county analysis shows how the supply escalated.
None of the counties with the highest per capita distribution of pills are in Minnesota. The hot spots are West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina, and to a lesser degree, Michigan and Nevada.
But the data does show that shipments generally increased here. Minnesota shares something else in common with the hot spots: The pain pill abuse epidemic has hit rural areas disproportionately here, too. Mille Lacs County has the highest per capita distribution in the state: an average 50.3 pills per person a year during the period studied. Carlton and St. Louis counties are second and third at 40.9 and 39.4, respectively. The same stat for Hennepin County: 24.6.
So what was the DEA doing as the opioid epidemic gathered steam? Was no one bothering to mine the data for details? If so, why not?
The flip side of this missing-in-action question is equally ominous. Were the agency and others charged with protecting public health aware of the escalating drug shipments? Did leaders then choose to do nothing?
A congressional inquiry also should explore what the industry knew. Four companies accounted for 75% of the pills supplied. The large shipments, especially to small Appalachian communities, should have set off red flags.
Minnesota appears to have escaped the worst of this epidemic, but legislators here also have work to do. The state became a national pioneer by collecting data on prescriptions for controlled drugs dispensed to Minnesota residents. Is there additional drug distribution information the state should collect? Is better monitoring of collected information needed?
It’s time to evaluate updates and improvements. Federal officials failed to sound the alarm. We can and should do better in Minnesota.