rom Washington, D.C., head southwest into Virginia for nearly five hours and put yourself due north from Greensboro, N.C. There you will find Martinsville, Va., where more opioids were prescribed per person in 2015 than any other jurisdiction in the United States.

Clinicians in Martinsville, home to fewer than 13,500 people, prescribed almost 4,090 morphine milligram equivalents per person. The national average was 640 milligram equivalents per person.

That contrast underlines the dramatic differences in opioid prescribing across the country as health officials try to tackle a national epidemic. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week found that while prescribing fell nationwide from 2010 to 2015, places that prescribed the most opioids were still doling out drugs at rates six times higher than the lowest tier of communities.


With that in mind, Martinsville still stands out. Even the jurisdictions ranked No. 2 (Norton, Va.) and 3 (Campbell County, Tenn.) on the CDC’s list trailed by comfortable margins — with about 3,375 and 3,300 milligram equivalents prescribed, respectively.

(The report generally examined data at the county level, but Virginia has a number of cities like Martinsville that are not part of counties and are viewed as their own entities in federal studies.)

Dr. Anne Schuchat, who was serving as acting CDC director until Friday, told reporters that the overprescription of opioids has led to addictions and left people vulnerable to overdoses and deaths.

That’s a pattern seen around the country, and recent state data from Virginia show how pervasive the problem has become in Martinsville.


In the city and adjacent Henry County, the rate of overdoses leading to emergency department visits was the highest in the state in January, at 32 per 100,000 people. Martinsville’s monthly overdose rate has fluctuated over the months, but it has generally been among the highest rates in the state.

The demographics of Martinsville also reflect some — though not all — of the factors that the CDC researchers found were associated with high levels of opioid prescriptions. Data show more opioids being prescribed in areas with more white residents, higher unemployment rates, a greater concentration of doctors and dentists, and higher rates of disability and diabetes. The researchers estimated that the factors accounted for about a third of the prescribing differences seen among counties.

Like many of the top prescribing places, Martinsville is a “micropolitan” area, essentially a big town or small city. It also has a higher unemployment rate than the average in Virginia, and a relatively high rate of people on disability. But its population is about 50 percent white and 46 percent black.

There are a number of caveats to consider. The CDC data were based on the location of pharmacies where opioids were picked up, so people who lived elsewhere but filled their prescriptions in Martinsville could have contributed to its high rate. Many counties in the country also did not have data for the CDC to analyze.

Top 10 places where opioids prescribing was highest in 2015

Jurisdictions 2010 Per Capita MME* 2015 Per Capita MME
Martinsville, Va. 5201.1 4086.9
Norton City, Va. 2647.5 3373.5
Campbell, Tenn. 2305.0 3304.3
Galax, Va. 2557.6 3119.4
Carbon, Utah 2838.0 2817.0
Walker, Ala. 4079.3 2813.3
Claiborne, Tenn. 2581.7 2807.6
Clay, Tenn. 3002.0 2797.7
Pickett, Tenn. 5542.6 2742.4
Wyoming, W.Va. 2699.8 2660.1

*MME = morphine milligram equivalents.

And from 2010 to 2015, Martinsville, like half the jurisdictions studied by the CDC, actually saw a decrease in opioids prescriptions, from 5,200 milligram equivalents per person to 4,090. And it’s likely that prescriptions have continued to fall since then.

Since 2015 — the last year the CDC had data for — the agency and hospitals around the country have launched initiatives to rein in opioid prescribing. The CDC released guidelines for prescribing opioids for pain last year, and a Virginia hospital association came out with its own plan last April. Clinicians at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville also started working to reduce prescriptions in the middle of 2016, according to WSLS, a local news station.

Representatives at the hospital as well as as the local health department were not immediately available for comment.

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  • I agree with Susie Q. The epidemic has been going on for years. The media has masked it, like they do with other problems we have in this country. I was losing friends to opioid overdose when I was in high school over 20 years ago. The problem is the blindness. All the new implements of electronic records has just now put the epidemic on blast?!? Oh, please!! People, you fail to see the bigger picture here: The government doesn’t want rid of the opioids, they want more control over it. They want everyone to pay for their medicine now. That’s what all this boils down to. Medicaid & Medicare pays a reduced amount for pain medication. Big Pharma wants their money. They pay lobbyists big money to make a big deal out of this issue. Big Pharma doesn’t care about you! The government doesn’t care about you. Wake up, people! Smh.

  • All it really takes is a couple of nursing home with residents on fentanyl patches. The whole concept of MME is totally flawed, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this ‘article’… sensationalism at its finest

  • Bro, you could have at least credited me for my photograph you found on flickr… Quality work, n’est çe pas?

  • A while back I went to the ER. Out of nowhere I started to have a pain in my right arm. Hadn’t hit it or dropped anything on it. Nothing I had done the days prior explained the pain. What does the hospital do? Send me home with a script for oxy’s. Went back two days later to find out I had an infection in my arm that deteriorates the soft tissue. On another visit I had a sharp pain in my right side for a few days. My wife and I both thought it was my appendix. Go to the ER and even the Dr. did at first. Ran a very few test and did 3 x-rays and luckily it was not my appendix. I had swollen limp-nods in my lower right abdomen causing the pain. Instead of even trying to figure out what caused the swollen limp-nods, guess what they did? That’s right, another script for oxy’s. They give out like candy anytime someone comes in there claiming to be in pain. They do not fix or try to resolve the issue that caused the pain. They just mask it with pain meds.

    • You’re upset that they treated your pain? Honestly, your story sounds like fake news! Doctors are so stingy with pain meds now

  • Dale, I have 3 illnesses that cause pain. Serious pain. I could name you a list of names of people who seek opioids for recreational purposes. I never take more than my recommended dosage with the appropriate time between doses. I also don’t take a sleeping pill if I have had an opiod that afternoon. But if you look at how many people for years sat hump-backed over a sewing machine, pushed a cutting machine for 8 hours a day, or pushed lumber through a planer for 8 – 10 hours a day, it makes sense that these people are probably in a lot of pain now, if they are still alive. If you are just hearing about the abuse and the over-abundance of mis-use of opiods in this region you have had your head in the sand. This has been going on for years. In fact, the major drug stores at one time were allotted a certain # of pain pills per month and if you didn’t get yours before they ran out…you were just out of luck and in excruciating pain. I do not get a high from my pain pills, they just make the pain bearable. So before you get so upset about a problem that hasn’t touched your world yet, you might want to research your subject a little more next time.

    • l lived and worked in Martinsville during one of it’s heydays 72′-85′. My job allowed me to get inside on the floor of every single factory unimpeded. It was all mostly manual labor at it’s finest. Now with still about 25% unemployment their are only I believe about two pharmacy locations serving all the county and city. Besides Walmart, there is only one location of a low-end grocer. The once bustling downtown is virtually completely boarded up. I would want something to kill the pain too! It used to be liquor at the private men’s clubs and country clubs for the well off, and back door nip joints and ABC stores for everyone else (day drinking by workers was the norm). So not much has really changed, except the product is now covered by virtually free medical insurance.

  • I LIVE in Martinsville and find this information MOST upsetting ! I am sure there are RECORDS of Who is prescribing these, AND who is BUYING THEM . I Demand that Something be done.

    • Look for the sickest and oldest people you can find, preferably those with cancer. Assuming you’re a good Christian woman, what can be done is bringing them dinner or sending the young ones to help with chores, groceries etc…

    • You DEMAND? Instead of demanding, get involved. Call Piedmont Community Services at 276.632.7128 and ask to speak to someone about Drug Free MHC, then inquire about the Opioid/Heroin Overdose Reduction Task Force. It’s all hands on deck time and concerned citizens are welcome to join.

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