It’s the story everyone is talking about, and also not talking about.
For all the national talk about the opioid crisis, medical professionals in Galveston County have been relatively hesitant to comment about its local effects.
But those who would talk acknowledged changes, including that doctors and pharmacies are becoming less willing to prescribe opioid drugs.
Representatives for a local pharmacy, for instance, declined to comment, but did acknowledge they were much more careful in handling opioid prescriptions given the environment and national conversation around them.
“Doctors have become very, very careful,” said Billy Smith, a program director at Bay Area Recovery Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program with locations throughout the area. “It’s just not easy to go into a doctor and get pain pills without the proper referrals now.”
Local health experts for years argued the opioid crisis wasn’t as dire in Galveston County as elsewhere in the country, but the thinking has changed recently.
Drug overdose deaths from opioids in the United States have been on a dramatic rise since 1999. Opioids were involved in more than 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 alone, about 67.8 percent of the country’s total 70,237 overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opioids include heroin and prescription drugs such as oxycodone and fentanyl, among others.
While the majority of Galveston County health experts said they were concerned about the opioid crisis and their role locally, representatives of one local pharmacy said the issue is overblown and only causing issues.
“I call the Drug Enforcement Administration the American Gestapo,” said John Hart, manager of Hart Pharmacy in La Marque. “I don’t believe a single word they’ve said. They’ve lied about everything. When they’re talking about the opioid crisis, they lump in prescription opioids with illegal medications. Already right there, that’s not a legitimate way of comparing things.”
Federal officials are paying more attention to local pharmacies and intimidating those who are honestly trying to help patients manage their pain, Hart said.
“They shouldn’t be using fear,” Hart said. “They say everyone is overdosing, but that’s not the case. They’ve made it even harder to get, and made more patients addicted to heroin.”
While Smith wasn’t negative toward federal authorities, he did acknowledge that more opioid addicts have been turning toward drugs like heroin and fentanyl because of their easy availability online and other illegal methods.
“It’s because of the influx of fentanyl,” Smith said. “It’s cheaper and less expensive and more readily available. I think part of what’s increased is that it is harder to get prescription pills.”
The rise of local opioid addiction has led to several different medical organizations researching alternatives for patients in pain.
“Due to the absence of opiates, pain creams can aid in lowering the risk of drug diversion and potential for dependency,” said Katherine Hunt, one of the owners of Gulf Coast Compounding Pharmacy in League City.
Drug diversion is the transfer of a prescription drug from a lawful to an unlawful channel of distribution.
Compounding pharmacies have been in high demand as consumers seek alternatives to mass-produced drugs.
And, elsewhere, a doctor at the University of Texas Medical Branch recently published a study linking lower opioid use rates with states with medical cannabis laws.
“We found a significant interaction between age and cannabis law on opioid prescriptions,” said Mukaila Raji, chief of Geriatric Medicine at the medical branch.
Experts for years have pointed to the fact that Texas’ opioid overdose rate is far below the national average, 5.1 deaths per 100,000 people compared with 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s March report.
But while the state’s numbers lag behind the rest of the country, the sheer number of deaths related to opioids has increased significantly since 1999, from about 291 to 1,174 in 2015, according to a Texas Health and Human Services report.
Galveston County also has a higher rate of opioid prescriptions per 100,000 population than the rest of Texas, Raji said in a previous interview with The Daily News.
Texas’ opioid prescription rate is about 57.6 per 100,000 population, which is lower than the national average of about 81 per 100,000 population, Raji said.
But in Galveston County, the rate is about 75 prescriptions per 100,000 population, Raji said.
About 20 Galveston County deaths in 2015 were opiate-related, and in 2017 county poison centers said they had 48 cases of opioid exposure, medical branch officials said.