The number of narcotics prescriptions written for Long Island residents fell 9 percent in 2012 -- nearly three times the statewide decrease -- signaling progress for authorities battling the Island's pain pill abuse epidemic.
The decline marks a significant change from 2011, when the number of prescriptions given to Nassau and Suffolk residents rose 2.9 percent compared with 2010, according to data compiled by the New York State Department of Health. The data reviewed by Newsday go back to 2010. The statewide increase for 2011 over 2010 was 4.6 percent.
There were 770,096 prescriptions for narcotics written for Suffolk residents in 2012. They were for the highly addictive opiates hydrocodone, oxycodone and hydromorphone. That's 79,919 fewer prescriptions than the total of 850,015 recorded countywide in 2011, and amounts to a 9.4 percent decrease.
In Nassau County, 493,585 narcotic prescriptions were written for residents in 2012 compared with 539,879 -- a decline of 46,294, or 8.6 percent, the data show. The statewide decrease in prescriptions written in 2012 over 2011 was 3.5 percent.
Experts attribute the decline in prescriptions for pain pills to several factors, including: increased scrutiny of pain doctors by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies; tighter restrictions at pharmacies; and increased awareness among physicians and patients about the risks of pain pill abuse.
The issue of pain pill abuse on Long Island exploded into the public consciousness with the Medford pharmacy murders of four people in June 2011 by David Laffer, who authorities said also stole large quantities of painkillers. State records showed that Laffer, before the killings, had obtained thousands of pain pills from prescriptions provided by area doctors. That, in turn, spurred discussion of the high levels of such prescriptions across Long Island.
Another galvanizing event was the accidental fatal shooting of federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent John Capano on Dec. 31, 2011, by a retired Nassau County police officer. Capano was struggling with a suspect who had robbed a Seaford pharmacy of painkillers when he was shot.
Authorities recently have reported a rise in heroin use across Long Island. Heroin is far cheaper -- about $10 a bag -- than prescription narcotics and produces a similar high.
The number of people confirmed to have died from heroin-related overdoses across Long Island rose to 110 last year from 96 in 2011, despite a decline in Nassau, records of the county medical examiners show.
As the number of narcotics prescriptions has declined, so have pain pill overdoses. The number of opiate overdose victims on Long Island -- not including those who died from heroin abuse -- fell to 228 in 2012 from 270 the previous year, according to Nassau and Suffolk medical examiner offices.
New York's top law enforcement official hailed the decline in prescriptions.
"We have started to bring the numbers down for a variety of reasons," New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman told Newsday. "Things are getting better."
"A small part of why you see this decrease is fear among doctors, who saw others getting arrested and thought they might be next," said Dr. Thomas Jan, a Massapequa pain management and addiction specialist. "A large part of it is physician awareness. Doctors are seeing there's a problem and saying, 'what can I do to make this better?' "
Pain doctors have also been more proactive in trying to identify drug abusers, experts say. They are increasingly using urine screening toxicology to identify patients with non-prescribed or illegal drugs in their system. Such tests also help identify patients who receive prescriptions but test negative for drugs, meaning they could be selling -- instead of using -- what doctors prescribe them.
Last week, Schneiderman's office charged a Baldwin doctor, Anand Persaud, with illegally prescribing oxycodone and other painkillers during 2011 and 2012. Persaud wrote thousands of prescriptions and pocketed $1.4 million in cash payments, Schneiderman's office said.
The trend of fewer narcotics prescriptions will likely continue, Schneiderman said, due in part to the implementation of next phase of the Internet System for Tracking Over Prescribing, known as I-STOP, which goes into effect Aug. 27. The first phase of I-Stop went into effect in November.
The system, championed by Schneiderman, will make New York the first state that requires doctors to consult a patient's medical history before prescribing most pain pills. I-STOP also requires real-time reporting by pharmacists when prescriptions for numerous powerful medications are filled.
"I think we'll see the numbers come down much more rapidly," Schneiderman said.
He said part of the reason narcotics prescriptions have fallen in Long Island at a greater rate than the state is local law enforcement agencies have been on the offensive ever since the Medford killings.
"The [murders] really helped draw attention to this issue and raise awareness," he said.
But authorities and treatment experts aren't yet declaring victory.
"After many years of increasingly bad news [regarding pill abuse], some glimmer of progress goes a long way toward moving toward an eventual solution," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "This is great news, but we have to make sure we're not fooling ourselves as heroin gains an even greater stronghold."