Opioid epidemic in Virginia hits ‘innocent bystanders’
Officials see surge in children exposed in womb; overall deaths climb, too
Virginia saw an unprecedented increase in babies born with exposure to dangerous drugs in 2016, state health officials told a panel of lawmakers Thursday morning.
The number of children exposed to drugs in utero increased 21 percent to 1,334 in fiscal year 2016, said Carl Ayers, director of the Division of Family Services in the Department of Social Services.
“These are the innocent bystanders,” Ayers told the Joint House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions and Senate Committee
1,334 The number of children in Virginia who were exposed to drugs in utero in fiscal year 2016 822 Opioid overdose deaths in Virginia through September 2016, up from 811 in all of 2015
on Education and Health.
Of the ones who were born with drug exposure, seven later died because of a lack of care in their homes, Ayers said. Eighty of the babies were placed in foster care in the first six months of the year.
The growing number of babies born with exposure to drugs is just one of many indicators that the
433 Number of opioid deaths in the first nine months of last year linked to fentanyl
opioid epidemic is spreading in Virginia. More people died of overdoses from opioids — a drug type that includes prescription painkillers as well as heroin — in the first nine months of 2016 than in all of 2015, according to Virginia Department of Health data.
Ayers was among nine officials
representing myriad agencies who outlined the epidemic and what’s being done about it during Thursday’s joint committee meeting.
“Trying to address this problem is really a multi-faceted approach, and all hands are on deck,” Bill Hazel, secretary of health and human resources, told the panel.
Hazel, Ayers and others gave the panel an overview of bills that will be filed to address the problem in the 2017 session of the General Assembly, which started Wednesday.
One bill, for example, would make it easier for the Department of Social Services to identify and support mothers who are abusing drugs.
The number of overdose deaths linked to opioids has been increasing steadily since 2012, when 572 people died.
Through September 2016, there were 822 opioid overdose deaths in Virginia — up from 811 in all of 2015.
More than half of the fatal opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2016 were caused by fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that now is being manufactured and sold illicitly as a potent alternative to heroin.
Of the 822 people who died in the first nine months of last year, 433 overdosed on fentanyl — a 160.8 percent increase in the number of fatal fentanyl overdoses compared with the same time period in 2015, according to department of health data.
Since the state began tracking opioid deaths in 2007, more than 6,300 people have died. Opioid deaths are the leading cause of accidental death in Virginia and across the nation, killing more people than car crashes.
“We are losing a generation of people,” Dr. Marissa J. Levine, the state health commissioner, said during the meeting. “We are losing them literally by the deaths that you’re seeing, and we’re losing them in many other ways.”
The opioid epidemic could create a ripple effect of other public health issues, Levine told the panel. The increased rates of injection drug use in the state could lead to a “tsunami” of hepatitis C and HIV, she said.
Cases of hepatitis C already have increased, Levine said, largely in the southwestern parts of Virginia. In 2010, the state had 2,800 cases of the virus. In 2015, that number shot up to 8,000.
“And many more go unreported,” she said. “This is a looming issue.”
HIV rates have not yet increased to the same degree as hepatitis C, but that likely is because of the two bloodborne pathogens that spread through injections, hepatitis C travels faster.
Levine has spoken in the past in favor of syringeservices programs, which would make clean injection equipment such as needles readily available to counties where the opioid epidemic is strongest. The Virginia Department of Health has put forward legislation that would legalize the program in Virginia.
Other state agencies have taken an interest in preventing Virginia providers from writing opioid prescriptions in the first place.
The Department of Medical Assistance Services — which runs the state’s Medicaid program — implemented new regulations in 2016 to lower the amount of opioid prescriptions its providers were writing, such as making it easier for them to prescribe drugs other than opioids.
In the three months after those regulations took effect, Medicaid saw a 50 percent drop in the amount of opioid prescriptions physicians were writing, but only a 12 percent decrease in the number of members receiving prescriptions, said Dr. Kate Neuhausen, DMAS’ chief medical officer.
“So this means that prescribers are decreasing the number of pills they prescribe to a member, which lowers the risk of a fatal overdose, not cutting patients off opioids, which could potentially lead to increased use of heroin,” Neuhausen said.
David E. Brown, the director of the Department of Health Professions, expanded on numerous bills proposed this session that would address the opioid crisis.
The bills include requiring that all opioid prescriptions be electronic to prevent fraud, placing 3-day limits on opioid prescriptions that originate in emergency rooms and creating peer providers that will allow trained people who have experienced addiction to help recovering addicts.