A federal agency is developing a plan to deal with an increase in deaths tied to the prescription drug methadone, one month after a Sunday Gazette-Mail series revealed a spike in overdoses nationwide.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is coming up with a strategy to deal with the spike in deaths, said spokeswoman Leah Young. The agency plans to work with the White House Drug Czar and the Drug Enforcement Administration to reduce the number of overdose deaths, she said.
The agency is developing a standard to determine just what should qualify as an overdose death caused by methadone � something that was called for three years ago during a federal conference on methadone deaths convened by SAMHSA.
Also, SAMHSA plans to provide training on the proper use of methadone for health-care providers before the end of the year, according to Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence.
Methadone contributes to more deaths nationwide than any other prescription narcotic, and West Virginia�s methadone death rate is the nation�s highest, a Gazette-Mail investigation found.
Methadone was a factor in the deaths of 2,992 people in 2003, up from 790 in 1999, according to an analysis of death certificates conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics for the Gazette-Mail.
The drug was blamed for more deaths than heroin and about 1,500 fewer deaths than all other narcotic painkillers combined, including oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine and hydrocodone.
Criminals and addicts are not the only people dying. Some overdose victims took the drug as prescribed and died anyway. A Utah study found that 42 percent of methadone overdose victims had a valid prescription for the drug.
Once, methadone was given mostly to heroin addicts to stop their cravings for the illegal drug. Recently, more doctors are prescribing it to treat pain. Insurance companies favor it because it is cheap and effective.
Most overdose deaths are caused by pill-form methadone, the kind that is prescribed for pain, not the liquid methadone usually given out at methadone treatment centers.
The bad publicity regarding methadone-related overdoses could scare drug users away from methadone treatment centers, said Parrino, who represents the nation�s methadone clinics.
Most of the overdose deaths are coming from doctors who improperly prescribe the drug, patients who don�t take it as prescribed and people getting the drug illegally, Parrino said.
The federal government should send a letter to all doctors who prescribe methadone for pain that warns them of the danger of overdose, he said.
Parrino said he recently spent three days in Washington, D.C., meeting with federal officials about overdose deaths tied to methadone. He encouraged federal agencies to join together to fight the problem.
�I think they realize this is an issue,� he said. �They understand the serious nature of this.�
�That devil drug�
Last month, one of the nation�s largest newsletters dealing with addiction devoted its lead article to the Sunday Gazette-Mail series.
�Methadone Painkiller Overdoses Causing PR Problem for Treatment Field,� read the headline in �Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly.�