Nearly a third of the prescriptions the state’s insurance fund for injured workers paid for last year were for powerful narcotics, part of a 37 percent increase in the use of such drugs — mainly addictive painkillers — the agency has seen among off-the-job employees over the past 10 years.
In addition, nearly a dollar of every $5 the agency pays out in medical benefits goes to cover prescription drugs, or $137 million last year, said John Hanna, pharmacy director at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
Hanna told bureau directors that the agency is part of the problem when it comes to the state’s prescription painkiller epidemic. He said in a follow-up interview the same day that some of the agency’s patients are “shipwrecks” who have been mistreated by prescribing physicians.
Hanna said the agency has 7,000 injured workers taking doses of painkillers, sometimes called opiates, at levels that meet the definition for being physically dependent on the drug.
“When you consider the levels of opiates that some of our clients are receiving, there’s serious questions out there,” Hanna told The Associated Press.
Hanna blamed the factors that have been previously identified in the nation’s painkiller epidemic: overzealous marketing of powerful painkillers and physicians who too readily prescribe them.
A group of public health officials, researchers and doctors on July 25 asked the Food and Drug Administration to toughen labeling on painkillers to make it more difficult for drug makers to market the medications for chronic, non-cancer pain.
Ohio’s workers’ comp agency is making progress reversing its painkiller trends and from February to April saw a 12 percent drop in patients receiving the most powerful narcotic painkillers as the agency restricts the drugs that physicians can prescribe after treatment for the initial pain of an injury.
This is part of a long-term effort not just to reduce the agency’s costs — which are born by employers, and ultimately, Ohio consumers — but to help injured workers, agency spokesman Bill Teets said.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do as an agency is to get people back to work sooner, and the opiates are an impediment to that,” Teets said.
Overdose drug deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio and many other states, surpassing car crashes, a trend attributed to the increase in painkiller addiction.
The Ohio State Medical Association said it believes the majority of doctors prescribe correctly but it supports ongoing education to make sure all physicians handle prescriptions in the most responsible and appropriate way.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said it supports several efforts and programs to prevent prescription drug abuse, including “appropriate use of medication and medication adherence.”
In Washington state, the workers’ compensation system saw declines in deaths of injured workers attributed to painkillers, along with declines in the number of workers getting strong doses of painkillers, after the agency enacted dosage guidelines in 2010.