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Drop seen in narcotic scripts filled on LI, says state

Shanna Lintz, at her Hicksville home Thursday evening,

Shanna Lintz, at her Hicksville home Thursday evening, May 25, 2017, has been clean for a few years after struggling with an addiction to pain pills and heroin. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The number of narcotic prescriptions filled on Long Island in 2016 dipped for the fourth year in a row even as the region remains in the tight grip of opioid addiction, according to data released by the state.

The New York State Department of Health recorded well over 992,000 filled prescriptions on Long Island for three of the top painkillers — a drop of 6.6 percent in 2016 that follows the downward trend in recent years and closely mirrors a statewide decline of 6.7 percent, the numbers show. The prescriptions were for oxycodone, hydrocodone and oxymorphone.

Experts attribute the decline to new state legislation and crackdowns on doctors who issue prescriptions to pill distributors and addicts.

But while the prescription drop is seen as good news, a darker trend has also emerged. Those who want something cheaper and stronger have turned to heroin laced with fentanyl, with some even bypassing pain pills, widely considered a gateway drug to the deadly combo.

Despite the trend and the record-setting mark of almost 500 opioid overdose-related deaths between Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2016, the decrease in prescriptions is a step in the right direction, anti-drug advocates said.

“It means we’re doing something right,” said Kevin Larkin, acting special agent in charge of Long Island for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “We’re solving one problem and we have to solve another.”

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The number of prescription narcotics filled in Suffolk County last year was nearly 609,000. For Nassau County, the number was smaller, with about 383,500, the data show.

Health professionals on Long Island wrote 1,055,630 prescriptions for the three narcotics in 2015, a decrease of less than half a percent from 2014, records show.

Bay Shore, Patchogue and Huntington Station had the largest tally of filled prescriptions on Long Island for 2016, according to the data. Bayshore had 23,893, Patchogue had 21,333, and Huntington Station had 21,311.

Massapequa had the highest total for all of Nassau County with 19,376, the fifth-highest total on Long Island.

Larkin and his team have spent the last six months focusing on pain management centers and pharmacies on Long Island, tracking those that fill larger than normal numbers of pill prescriptions.

One way to find problem doctors, Larkin said, is to first identify a pain center or pharmacy showing a high number of prescriptions, monitor it and then contact owners to determine why the numbers are so high.

“Once you become addicted, this stuff is prescription heroin,” said Larkin, referring to pain pills. “You’re either going to get help or treatment, or you’re going to turn to heroin.”

Bags of heroin, which in some instances can go for as low as $6, are cheaper and stronger than prescription pills, which have an average street value of a dollar a milligram, experts say.

To help combat the drug trend, a statewide database requiring prescribers to check their patients’ histories with controlled substances and when they last received them was created. I-STOP, or the internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, went into effect in 2013. And just last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a package of bills that included limiting opioid prescriptions from 30 days to just seven days.

In 2016, both Nassau and Suffolk counties reached all-time highs related to opioid overdose deaths, records show. And while heroin and fentanyl were responsible for most of the deaths, pain pills did significant damage. Of the 190 deaths attributed to opioid overdose in Nassau County, 48 were related to oxycodone, records show.

In Suffolk County, 62 of the record 303 deaths were related to oxycodone, records show. And that number could be higher once pending cases become finalized.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive for the nonprofit Family and Children’s Association in Mineola, said he’s heard of dealers advertising fentanyl-laced heroin, capitalizing on a market of addicts who can’t afford pills.

“When you crack down on prescription meds some folks go to treatment, but the historic demand is still there,” Reynolds said. “I just see folks so desperate to put anything in their bodies.”

Bridget Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor, spearheaded an investigation last month where three Long Island medical professionals were among 13 people indicted in a scheme to swindle millions of dollars from Medicaid and Medicare, swapping unnecessary procedures for painkiller prescriptions.

Brennan said her office was tipped off by Larkin and his staff. They were traced back to three pain management centers operating out of Brooklyn, responsible for 6.3 million opioid pills on the street, officials said.

Cases like these make Brennan reach out to doctors and caution them against overprescribing.

“If you prescribe the medication, a month’s worth of Percocet for having a tooth pulled, the default was a thirty day prescription,” Brenna said. “What’s going to happen with that?”

Dr. Thomas Jan, a pain specialist who works in Massapequa, said doctors now struggle to find the right balance, fearful of an investigation or a prosecution.

Jan, who said he used to write a large number of prescriptions for pain, changed his whole prescribing method, switching to pills that give relief in 12 to 24 hours instead of immediately.

“Ninety percent of the doctors doing the wrong thing were doing it for the right reasons 10 years ago,” Jan said. “No one can possibly believe that they were prescribing like a deranged Pez dispenser.”

Jan said cracking down on prescription pills is a good step but the real cure is treatment. Without it, addicts will continue the trend of seeking out harder drugs.

Shanna Lintz, 30, of Hicksville started out snorting crushed pain pills her boyfriend purchased when they did drugs together in 2005.

She spent her time in and out of treatment and soon migrated to heroin. Lintz said she “fell in love” with opioids because the pills relieved her anxiety and depression.

“The first time I took it, I felt almost numb to everything else that was going on in my life. I didn’t have any care in the world,” said Lintz, now a hairstylist with a 3-year-old daughter, Briella. “I didn’t have the anxiety or any of the mental health issues. They were all masked. But when they wore off they all came back.”

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