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Filler: Fewer pain-pill deaths is a trace of good news

Oxycodone tablets being dispenses in a pharmacy on

Oxycodone tablets being dispenses in a pharmacy on Jan. 12, 2012. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Sometimes, even when the good news is substantial, it's the bad news that gets all the press. This is particularly true when it comes to issues like crime, drug abuse and overdoses, when the negatives are so frightening that they drown out the positives.

Deaths from opiate overdoses have declined on Long Island by about 20 percent since 2011. In that year, there were 366 fatalities from prescription opiates and heroin, according to the medical examiners in Nassau and Suffolk. In 2013, that number was 291.

Newsday's front page on Sunday trumpeted, "Heroin Toll Rises on LI," and under that, "241 overdose deaths in two years as addicts shift from pain pills."

These things are utterly true.

But it's also true, and more important, that overdose deaths from prescription opiates such as oxycodone and hydrocodone have dropped so much faster than deaths from heroin have risen. And there are some realities in the juxtaposition of these truths that are even more notable.

David Laffer's shooting rampage in a Medford pharmacy in 2011 that left four people dead, and the killing of a federal agent during the robbery of a Seaford pharmacy a few months later, underscored the serious prescription narcotics problem on Long Island.

As a result, a state monitoring system, I-Stop, was created to force doctors and pharmacies to track and log patient prescriptions in a computer system, and people became a lot more conscious of the risks the pills in their cabinets pose to themselves, children and grandchildren. The effects have been positive and dramatic: Besides the reduction in overdose deaths, prescriptions written for the opiates declined by about 9 percent on Long Island from 2011 to 2012 and experts say street prices for the pills soared as supply has dwindled.

The bad news? Some priced-out pill poppers moved to heroin, which is cheaper, easy to find and essentially the same drug.

"I've seen a sevenfold increase in people needing treatment," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, on the increase in heroin use.

Reynolds said we need more treatment facilities, adding that the waiting times for help are so long that people who think they are ready to get clean have often fallen back under the spell of drugs by the time an inpatient spot opens up. But Reynolds also estimates that the relapse rate of people coming out of rehabilitation is at least 75 percent, which drives home an even harder-to-swallow truth: It may well be that we're not doing enough, but in many cases, nothing helps.

I'm an alcoholic who hasn't had a drink for a decade. When I go to my meetings, I see the same 20 people with longtime sobriety who are there every week and 10 others who are in their first day, week, month or year of trying to kick the habit. In my experience, of those 10, one or two will quit for good. Another one or two will start drinking again, but come back to meetings and quit for good later. The rest will die drunk.

Addiction is grotesque, stubborn, irrational and sometimes, unconquerable.

The argument that we need more rehab resources is true. The idea that if we had more rehab resources we'd triumph over or even make a huge dent in the tragedy of addiction, isn't true. There's too much relapse, and too many addicts unwilling to get help.

And the whole thing is so sad that when there is rare good news -- in this case, fewer prescription opiate deaths -- I hate to see it overshadowed by a much smaller increase in heroin fatalities.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.