A database that tracks the path of every pain pill sold in the U.S. from 2006 through 2012 has been made public by The Washington Post, offering a comprehensive county-by-county breakdown of how the opioid crisis spread.
The data, recorded by the DEA, shows that over 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were distributed across the country during that time frame. The volume of pills that were distributed also increased over time, with 8.4 billion sent out in 2006 compared to 12.6 billion in 2012. In Vermont, over 123 million pills were distributed.
Maureen Leahy, director of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said the prescribing of pain medication has changed drastically since the years recorded in the database.
“It was a period of time where there was a different emphasis on pain management, both from the way medicine had been practiced and from a regulatory standpoint,” Leahy said. “We recognized that the prescribing of opioids had gotten way out of hand and become the default treatment for pain.”
To put county-by-county statistics in perspective, The Washington Post calculated how many pills per person, per year the total amount prescribed amounts to. In Chittenden County, there were over 35 million pills prescribed, or 32 pills per person. The county has recently made significant process in the fight against opioids, seeing a 50 percent drop in opioid-related deaths in 2018. Two years earlier, UVM Medical Center began tracking their own data on prescribing, specifically targeting prescriptions of over 50 pills.
“When we started looking at it, part of our goal was to understand the patterns to make sure that like providers had similar patterns,” Leahy said. “If there are four providers offering the same service and one of them stands out, it’s incumbent on us to ask why, share the data with the provider, and help them come in line with the prescribing patterns of their colleagues.”
While data from 2006 through 2012 sheds light on how the opioid crisis grew, more recent data could prove beneficial for states in the thick of the current epidemic. The Washington Post is fighting to get data from 2013 and 2014 released, and Leahy said any recent data could help optimize treatment resources.
“As a state, it’s helpful for us to look at it county-by-county because then we can make sure that we have the right resources in the right locations,” Leahy said. “Vermont has a very well-established hub and spoke model, so if all of the hubs are in the county with the lowest prescribing, maybe it’s not the right match.”