May 11, 2017

As Maryland aggressively tackles opioid abuse, the problem grows, especially among seniors

The opioid addiction crisis among seniors in the state of Maryland should be addressed with “great vigor,” said Brian Frosh, attorney general for the state.

Brian Frosh

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

Frosh spoke during a daylong seminar at the American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division Spring Meeting, “The Hidden Epidemic: Seniors and Opioid Addiction,” held at the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Explaining the seriousness of the problem, Frosh said that since he assumed his position in 2015, emergency room visits for opioid overdoses have quadrupled.

Frosh referenced the role Purdue Pharma had in contributing to the opioid epidemic through its 1996 debut of OxyContin, a formulation of oxycodone, which is an opioid pain reliever.

From the start, the pain reliever was heavily marketed. “One year Purdue paid bonuses of $1 million to sales representatives,” Frosh said. “Ten years later, they paid $40 million in bonuses.”

Frosh said the uptick of the marketing and subsequent consumption of such pain medications have had a devastating effect on communities like his own. He said in some towns in the U.S., the economy is nearly solely based on the sale of opioids and that people shoplift to buy the medicine on the street.  

“No longer is it in the back alleys of urban areas throughout the country. All sectors of society are involved,” Frosh said. “It’s middle-class and upper-class people scrambling to get their fixes for opioid and heroin.”

Frosh said law enforcement would not be able to solve the problem by themselves, but that it would take them working with public health and the community to make progress. “We are not going to arrest and incarcerate our way out of this problem,” he said.

Recently, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in response to the opioid-addiction crisis in Maryland, and committed $50 million to increase prevention, treatment and enforcement efforts.

“There are many families in pain. It’s something we have to continue to address,” Frosh added. “We’re working together, but we haven’t found the magic bullet.”

Rushern Baker

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III

Maryland is aggressively working to address the drug epidemic, but the problem extends far beyond its borders.

Americans consume more opioids than the rest of the world, according to Dr. Mary W. Carter, associate professor and Gerontology Programs director at Towson University, who spoke at a separate session earlier in the day.

Carter said that Americans use 81 percent of the world’s supply of Oxycodone and Percocet, and the United States consumes nearly 100 percent of the world’s total for hydrocodone.

Later in the day, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III joined the conversation, noting that seniors are particularly vulnerable to addiction.

Baker said 9 million Medicaid part D beneficiaries receive opioids for pain associated with cancer treatment or hospice care, “so there is plenty opportunity for abuse.”

Moreover, after hospitalization, 15 percent of seniors enrolled in Medicare are given new prescription opioids.

Baker said that in Prince George’s County, where about a quarter of the residents are 55 or older, 86 percent of all intoxication deaths in 2015 were opioid-related. Also in the county, opioids deaths have increased 6 percent, from 330 in 2014 to 351 deaths the very next year.

State-level coordination to deal with the issue is under way, Baker said, but the county needs help monitoring people on the medication as well as more funding to treat people who are already addicted.

“The real issue for us is: How do we make sure that someone who does not have a drug problem doesn’t develop it [when prescribed pain drugs]?” Baker pondered, emphasizing the importance of drug monitoring for those using such prescriptions.

Baker also said it was important to consider the availability of beds in treatment facilities for those addicted to opioids and to make sure that seniors without resources are being monitored so they won’t fall victim to addiction.  Supporting material provided by each speaker is available here.