By ERIC EYRE
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than 840 West Virginians fatally overdosed on drugs last year — a record number — and additional deaths are expected to be added to the total in the coming weeks.
Fatal overdoses related to fentanyl, an opioid that’s 100 times stronger than prescription morphine, have fueled the increase.
West Virginia already has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.
At last count, 844 people had died of drug overdoses in West Virginia in 2016, according to data released Wednesday. That’s up from 731 drug deaths, the previous all-time high, the year before.
The drug overdose death toll has climbed 46 percent in just four years.
“This shows the magnitude of the problem,” said Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, whose county has been hit especially hard by drug overdoses. “We have a real crisis.”
Fentanyl-related overdose deaths alone jumped to 324 last year, compared to 180 in 2015 and 58 in 2014. Cabell County led the state, with 73 fentanyl-related deaths last year. Kanawha County followed, with 46 fentanyl overdose deaths, and Berkeley County had 43 fatalities.
Hospitals use fentanyl to sedate patients before surgery. Doctors also prescribe the drug to alleviate severe pain.
But the fentanyl that’s killing people in West Virginia and numerous other states comes in a powder form — or compressed into pills in underground labs.
Fentanyl depresses a person’s respiratory system. Drug traffickers often mix fentanyl with heroin.
Fatal overdoses caused by heroin also are increasing in West Virginia — from 201 in 2015 to 236 last year. Cabell County had the most heroin-related overdose deaths, with 54. Kanawha County had 36 and Berkeley County reported 34.
The West Virginia Health Statistics Center compiles the state’s overdose data from death certificates certified by the chief medical examiner. The overwhelming majority of overdose deaths involve combinations of multiple drugs.
In Washington, D.C., earlier this week, members of a congressional panel investigating fentanyl questioned federal law enforcement and health officials about the link between prescription painkillers and heroin and fentanyl.
In some states, as many as two of three people who fatally overdosed on fentanyl had been prescribed prescription opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, within the previous three months, said Dr. Debra Houry, a director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Many of the people who have overdosed on fentanyl had an opioid prescription at the time of their death,” Houry told members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations. “So I believe all of these — fentanyl, heroin, prescription opioid deaths — are linked.”
Also during the hearing, Republicans and Democrats on the congressional panel repeatedly cited a Charleston Gazette-Mail series that found wholesale drug distributors shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia over six years, a period when more than 1,700 state residents fatally overdosed on those same powerful painkillers.
“This is shocking,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla. “It would appear addiction to pain pills, that once you have oxycodone and hydrocodone that takes over someone’s life, it will lead the user to seek more powerful opiates such as heroin or counterfeit pills, both of which may be adulterated with fentanyl.”
Federal lawmakers also asked about a pharmacy in Kermit, a town with just under 400 people in Southern West Virginia The newspaper’s series spotlighted the pharmacy, which ordered nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills in just two years.
“Massive amounts,” said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., the subcommittee’s chairman. “You’re seeing these targeted areas where the amounts of prescriptions is way, way out of control. It’s way out of control, and these deaths are occurring.”
Louis Milione, assistant administrator with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told the panel he was aware of the Gazette-Mail’s reporting on the Sav-Rite Pharmacy in Kermit.
“That’s happened in many locations across the country,” Milione said. “We have an obligation across the whole supply chain — from the manufacturers and distributors … ”
“What’s happening with the wholesalers?” Castor asked.
“The wholesalers have to uphold their regulatory obligations,” Milione said. “We’ve taken action against two of the big three — McKesson and Cardinal Health.”
McKesson paid a $150 million fine to settle a federal investigation, while Cardinal Health agreed to a $44 million settlement.
“Our hope is, with their compliance systems, like any good corporate citizen, they would uphold those obligations,” Milione said. “But it’s not just the wholesalers. We have to go all the way down the supply chain to maintain this closed system of distribution.”
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