County’s Prescription Drug Use, Treatment Probed by Supes

Humboldt’s Board of Supervisors has been told that the county’s use of prescription narcotics amounts to 14.5 Vicodin tablets per day for every man, woman and child.

But they were also briefed on a health care collaborative’s successful effort to reduce opiate prescriptions and the transformational benefits of an addiction treatment drug.

Supervisors proclaimed the month of March as Prescription Drug Abuse Awareness Month at their March 15 meeting.

The Humboldt Independent Practice Association is a member of a coalition of community health care groups that has been responding to what was described as a national and local crisis related to overuse of prescription opiates.

Mary Meengs, the association’s medical director, said coalition members have been meeting regularly over the last three years, studying public health data and gauging the extent of prescription drug use.

She said that Humboldt County’s average volume of prescribed opiates is “equal to every single man, woman and child in Humboldt County taking 14.5 Vicodin tabs every single day.”

The coalition has sponsored local conferences and is making progress on “reducing the volume of prescription opiates going into our community,” Meengs continued. She said up to 80 percent of heroin addicts begin by taking prescribed narcotics.

There’s been success in treating addiction and reducing overdoses as well, she said, but “there’s much more work to be done to change ingrained medical practices and a culture that expects a quick fix for every pain.”

Instrumental in preventing overdose deaths, naloxone is an opiate overdose antidote that’s being distributed by the county’s Public Health Branch.

Bill Hunter, a former Southern Humboldt practitioner who is now the medical director of the Open Door Community Health Centers network, said that according to data from Partnership Health Plan, opiate prescriptions in Humboldt County have been reduced by 75 percent over the last six months.

He also said Open Door has a “pretty robust program” of medication-assisted addiction treatment that’s seen as a leading one of its kind in the state, thanks to an extremely effective drug.

Suboxone, the brand name for the drug buprenorphine, has a “partial opiate effect so it can take care of any cravings or addiction behaviors but you don’t get high from it, it doesn’t make you want more and more of it and you can’t overdose on it,” Hunter said.

Open Door has been using Suboxone since it was federally approved several years ago, he continued, as the county didn’t have any methadone programs. It has been highly successful.

“I’ll tell you, over 38 years in practicing primary care in Humboldt County, I’ve never really done anything that was so transformational in people’s lives,” said Hunter. “When you see someone who is just horribly addicted, horribly strung out and totally dominated by their need to get their next fix and the very next week they’re shaved and well-dressed and thinking about how to put their life back together, it’s the most amazing thing — and we see that story over and over and over again.”

Hunter said there are 400 Open Door patients receiving Suboxone in Humboldt and Del Norte counties and the network’s program includes seven to 10 prescribing physicians, one nurse and three addiction treatment counselors.

Asked by Supervisor Estelle Fennell if marijuana is being considered to treat pain, Hunter said that “research is muddy” due to political and emotional factors but that marijuana “may have a role.”

Non-polluting disposal of prescription drugs is also something that’s being promoted. Jill Duffy, the executive director of the Humboldt Waste Management Authority said washing unused drugs down the drain — which was formerly recommended — pollutes waterways and her agency accepts them for safe disposal at its Eureka waste drop-off site.

She described the scale of what’s being brought in and the opportunities for safe disposal.

“What we’re receiving is over 2,000 pounds of medications a year — think about how many pills it takes make a pound and multiply, it’s essentially an entire ton,” said Duffy. “We’re having that material shipped out and disposed of appropriately.”

 Duffy said residents can bring in unused medications for disposal during the authority’s household hazardous waste days and pharmaceutical round-up events in addition to the authority’s drop-off site in Eureka.

A representative of Cloney’s Pharmacies said unused prescription drug dropoff will be available at the pharmacies possibly as soon as this week.