By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
Ohioans are dying from drug overdoses at record-high rates, the state Department of Health said Friday as it released 2011 figures that place the blame on prescription painkillers and also show a worsening heroin problem.
The number of people who died of accidental overdoses jumped 14 percent to 1,765 from 2010. Such overdoses remain the leading cause of accidental deaths in the state, ahead of car crashes and falls, a trend that began in 2007.
The data means nearly five Ohioans died every day in 2011 from accidental drug overdoses, or about one every five hours.
The Health Department says multiple drug use is a major contributing factor, with more than two of every three deaths involving more than one drug.
The dire statistics come at a time when Ohio has launched numerous efforts to crack down on illegal prescription painkiller use and distribution. Midway through 2011, Ohio enacted a law meant to reduce the number of pills-on-demand clinics where many addicts were receiving pain pills under questionable circumstances.
The state has also tightened prescribing rules for painkillers, while changes in Medicaid rules are making it easier for doctors to prescribe medication that helps addicts beat the craving for drugs like heroin and painkillers.
The increasing deaths are part of a decade-long trend of an overabundance of painkillers in the state, and it’s going to take a while to reverse that trend, said Christy Beeghly, the Health Department’s Violence and Injury Prevention Program administrator.
“It’s like when we put more cars on the road, we’re going to see more car crashes,” Beeghley said Friday. “So we put more pills out there, we have more addiction and ultimately more overdoses.”
In 2011, an average of 59 painkillers was dispensed for every Ohio resident, according to Ohio Board of Pharmacy data reported by the Health Department.
Scioto County in southern Ohio led the state in the per capita overdose death rate from 2007 through 2011, followed by Brown, Jefferson, Pike and Adams counties, all in southern or eastern Ohio.
Cuyahoga County had the highest number of total overdose deaths in 2011 with 211, followed by Franklin County with 209 and Montgomery County with 121.
At the Counseling Center in Portsmouth in Scioto County, hundreds of people are treated each year for addictions to painkillers and heroin, director Ed Hughes said Friday. That includes an average of 15 drug-addicted pregnant women receiving treatment each day.
Hughes backs Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to expand Medicaid in Ohio and said the new data is one more reason to do so.
“We have a lot of very sick people standing on the outside looking in, in terms of even asking for help, but because of the absence of insurance or medical coverage, they’re not getting the help that they need,” Hughes said.
Kasich’s fellow Republican lawmakers rejected the Medicaid proposal — some because of opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law, others concerned about the impact of the cost to the federal government — but have said they would consider other options for coverage.
In addition to increases in prescription painkiller and heroin overdoses, a growing number of Ohioans are dying from overdosing with anti-anxiety medications, the state data shows.
The number of heroin overdose deaths jumped to 426 in 2011, up from 338 the previous year, part of a trend that police and counseling agencies have been warning about for several years. As addicts’ supply of painkiller dries up, they turn to the cheaper and, in some cases, more dangerous street drug.
Beeghly said it’s wrong to blame the crackdown on painkillers for the increase in heroin use.
Heroin deaths are “a consequence of just the sheer exposure to these highly addictive drugs in the first place,” she said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.