Florida’s crackdown on painkiller abuse may be working.
Fewer people in Florida are dying from opioid overdose after the state passed laws making it more difficult for patients to get the drugs and federal authorities arrested dozens of individuals involved in “pill mills,” according to a study published Monday in the American Journal of Public Health.
Between 2010 and 2012, laws went into effect in Florida that, in part, limited pharmacies to dispensing three days worth of opioids and made it illegal for doctors who prescribed the potent painkillers to also operate an on-site pharmacy to fill the prescriptions.
To measure the effect of the laws and the federal arrests, researchers looked at deaths from opioid overdose in North Carolina, which has a similar poverty level and median household income to Florida but didn’t push hard to limit access to painkillers.
The researchers, mostly from Johns Hopkins, used that data to predict what would have happened in Florida without the new laws and arrests. Their model showed opioid deaths would have risen — but, in fact, they fell, a victory that the researchers attribute to the state and federal actions.
Researchers already knew that the opioid death rate in Florida had fallen since 2010, but the new study strengthens the claim that the interventions deserve the credit, said epidemiologist Hal Johnson, who has looked at mortality data for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new study comes on the heels of a paper finding that the bulk of painkillers prescribed to Medicare patients come from general practitioners, not specialists or “pill mills,” which dispense narcotics to customers without legitimate need. That report called into question the idea that a small group of bad doctors are responsible for the opioid epidemic.
Dr. Jonathan Chen, who co-authored that paper, said policy makers need to look at the whole picture in combating opioid abuse because, in his view, pill mills aren’t the driving force.
“While identifying and shutting down truly corrupt pill mill practices is reasonable, I think that only targets a highly visible but limited fraction of a bigger problem that is more insidiously pervasive,” Chen said.
Deaths from opioid overdose nationwide have climbed in the past 15 years, peaking at around 28,000 in 2014, according to the CDC.
Critics of Florida’s laws say the government is harming people with legitimate needs for pain pills, including cancer patients and those recovering from surgery. Unable to get relief from their pain, some patients have committed suicide, the Orlando Sentinel reported in September.