Prescriptions for opioid pain pills decreased slightly on Long Island in 2015, while the number of opioids prescribed in New York as a whole declined even less, data show.
The number of opioids prescribed in Nassau and Suffolk counties declined 1.79 percent from 2014 to 2015 versus a dip of 0.44 percent in New York, according to numbers compiled by the state’s health department.
“Disturbing? Yes. Surprising? No,” Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the nonprofit Family and Children’s Association, which runs several addiction treatment centers on Long Island, said of the 2015 data. “Though law enforcement has done a good job ferreting out the bad actors running pill mills and engaging in other criminal behaviors, there are still thousands of prescribers who are doling out opioids as routinely as they did years ago.”
Prescription opioid abuse reached epidemic proportions on Long Island in the mid-2000s, experts said, with overprescribing doctors doling out massive amounts of the narcotics. Once used almost exclusively to treat cancer-related pain, prescribing of opioids became common in the late 1990s due to government rule changes and intensive marketing by drugmakers.
The pills are considered highly addictive and offer a high akin to heroin’s.
Newsday’s analysis, drawn from statistics compiled by the state Department of Health, shows that 1,055,630 prescriptions for opioid pain pills such as oxycodone and hydrocodone were written on Long Island in 2015.
The statistics do not include the number of actual pills prescribed, but experts said that amount is likely in the tens of millions.
In Suffolk, 637,906 prescriptions for opioids were written in 2015, compared to 655,661 recorded countywide in 2014 — a decrease of 2.71 percent, records show.
In Nassau, 417,724 prescriptions for opioid pain pills were written for residents in 2015 compared with 419,171 in 2014 — a decline of 0.35 percent, the data show.
Prescriptions for opioids nationwide have declined by 18 percent since 2012, according to the most recent statistics compiled by Symphony Health Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based data company whose information is used by health providers across the country.
On Long Island, prescriptions declined 16 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to the state.
Comparable New York State data for the period analyzed by Symphony were not available.
Fewer prescriptions, however, have not led to fewer deaths. Nationwide, 28,647 fatal overdoses were attributed to opioids in 2014 — a record high.
On Long Island, the number of fatal opioid pill and heroin overdoses also reached record levels last year. At least 442 people in Nassau and Suffolk died from the powerful drugs, a rate about two-thirds higher than the national average, records show.
The opioid abuse epidemic has continued unabated, experts said, despite government actions aimed at curbing abuse, such as increased scrutiny of pain doctors by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, tighter restrictions at pharmacies, and laws mandating insurance companies pay for addiction treatment.
Awareness of overprescribing was heightened locally after the disclosure that convicted killer David Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady, obtained thousands of pain pills from physicians in the months leading up to June 19, 2011, when Laffer fatally shot four people in a Medford pharmacy and stole thousands of additional pain pills.
Five years later — despite the implementation in 2013 of I-STOP (Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing) in New York State, which requires doctors to consult a patient’s prescription history before prescribing opioids — pills continue to be prescribed in amounts many medical experts consider alarming.
“We are still in dangerous waters,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, director of the national advocacy group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, and a senior scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. “The level of prescribing that has been fueling the opioid epidemic needs to come down if we hope to bring the epidemic under control.”
Still, experts said, some progress has been made. Doctors accused of criminal negligence are being prosecuted at rates far higher than at any time in history, both locally and nationally, authorities said.
And on the streets, opioids remain out of reach for many addicts. Illicit pills typically sell for $1 per milligram — $80 for an 80 milligram pill — as opposed to $5 or $10 for a bag of heroin.
That price difference has led scores of pill addicts to switch to heroin in recent years. Among them was Billy Reitzig, 25, of Miller Place, who died of an apparent heroin overdose on April 22.
“We did everything we could to save him,” said Billy’s father, William Reitzig, the former president of the now-closed Sports Plus entertainment complex in Lake Grove. “The addiction was just too powerful.”
Jason Demetrakis, 28, who became addicted to oxycodone two years ago and switched to heroin in 2015, said getting pain pills from doctors was “no problem for a long time” in Nassau or Suffolk.
“As long as there are doctors who give them [pills] out like nothing, nothing changes,” said Demetrakis of Farmingdale, who is undergoing addiction treatment.
“Even with all the news about people [overdosing], it happens,” he added.
Kolodny said the nationwide decreases in opioid prescriptions are largely a result of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s change in regulations that govern the prescribing hydrocodone-based opioids in 2014 — a move that made the drugs harder to obtain.
New York made the same change in 2013.
A year later, opioid prescriptions fell from 6,946,047 in 2013 to 6,528,268 in 2014 statewide — a decline of 6 percent, records show.
“I still hear stories almost every day about patients who after routine procedures are given scripts for large quantities of Percocet and opioid pain killers,” Reynolds said. “It’s just standard practice among many practitioners.”
Opioid pill prescriptions on Long Island
2014: 1,074,832 2015: 1,055,630
Opioid pill prescriptions in New York State
2014: 6,528,2682015: 6,499,742
Source: New York State Department of Health