WTOC Investigates: Opioid Overload
SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - There's an epidemic going on in this country, with death rates now rivaling that of AIDS during the 1990s.
And the source of the problem is likely in your own home.
We're talking about opioids, from heroin to prescription painkillers found in medicine cabinets across the country. They are suspected in the death of Prince and confirmed in the deaths of thousands in our own viewing area.
But is there enough help for those who need it?
"I literally was at death’s door." - Raven Saul
How big is the problem today?
Overdoses from opioid addiction have quadrupled since 2000.
Plus, Georgia and South Carolina each saw a 10% jump in deadly overdoses between 2013 and 2014, and the epidemic is only getting worse.
And we're not excluded in the Coastal Empire. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations provided the following numbers of drug overdoses where at least one drug was an opioid. The 2016 numbers are current up to May 2, 2016:
"I lost everything – my career, my home, all of my belongings," said Raven Saul. "Anything I held near and dear to me, I lost it. I was homeless, jobless, penniless, very sick, unhealthy and addicted to drugs."
Saul's opioid addiction began after a regular surgery, and it would last for seven years. She's one of the lucky ones who escaped the grip of addiction alive, but just barely.
"I literally was at death's door," said Saul. "They were planning my funeral at one point."
At first, Saul went into a state-funded treatment program and got clean; but not for long.
"When I relapsed three months later, I shot myself in the stomach," she said. "I wanted to die, I tried to commit suicide, because that's how bad my life was. I was an addict and I couldn't stay clean."
Today she is clean, and has been for six months. Saul went to the Assisted Recovery Center of Georgia in Savannah, where treatment doesn't stop at detox or group therapy. They fight fire with fire.
At ARC, patients are prescribed a form of buprenorphine, which is an opioid itself.
"It stops the physical cravings, it leaves you less vulnerable to psychological triggers that could cause a relapse and it allows you to focus on your counseling and your therapy, which is the cornerstone of the recovery process in itself," ARC's Bradley Vickers said.
When prescribed, buprenorphine is often combined with a blocker, which means users can't get high on it, plus it's safer than alternatives like methadone because it's hard to overdose on the drug.
“There is not enough help available for people who need help with opioid dependency.” - Dr. D. Ray Gaskin.
Dr. D. Ray Gaskin introduced buprenorphine to the Savannah area more than a decade ago. He says one in 10 people are prone to addiction.
And demand for this kind of medically-assisted treatment is through the roof, but it's finding a doctor
who will provide it that can be the tough part.
"There is not enough help available for people who need help with opioid dependency, because as of today, we are clearly falling short of the need," Gaskin said.
"There's not a ton of options," said a recovering opioid addict, Sarah. "You can't just go to your family doctor and get it either. There are only certain doctors that you can get it from, so it's difficult to find."
Gaskin is only one of about two dozen doctors in Savannah who can prescribe buprenorphine. Plus, by law, each doctor is only allowed to have a hundred patients on the drug at a time.
But that may soon change.
This year, President Obama proposed increasing that cap to 200 patients per doctor. The president's 2017 budget proposal also includes $1.1 billion dollars to combat the opioid epidemic.
"The only way that we reduce demand is if we're providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem, and not just a criminal problem," Obama said.
But it's a financial problem, too. Treatment can easily cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in some cases. That's a difficult hurdle, if not impossible, for some addicts.
"Although I was working all these jobs, I was working to support my habit," Sarah said. "So I was working and working, just to spend. I was spending a hundred dollars a day on drugs."
As more attention is focused on finding a solution to the opioid epidemic, many are still focused on the source of it. Some are looking to doctors and hospitals that do not responsibly prescribe these opioids in the first place, especially to so-called "frequent fliers."
Every time you fill a prescription at the pharmacy, you leave a paper trail on a statewide database that any doctor can view before writing a script. Therefore, Gaskin said there shouldn't be any second-guessing.
"So a doctor that is thinking, 'Hey, am I being ripped off for pain pills?' They can check it right there and they can see that this person doesn't have a challenging history when it comes to controlled substances and know that they have a greater chance of helping and not contributing to the problem," Gaskin said.
Here's the thing, though: many doctors ARE, in fact, contributing to the problem.
"Our real problem is getting doctors to register and take a minute to do this," Dr. Gaskin said.
According to Gaskin, only 30 percent of physicians take the extra minute to check a patient's prescription history on the statewide database before writing a script, and other studies have revealed a similar pattern.
The purpose of these "Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs" is not to hurt or shame patients, but to give the doctor information they need to prescribe responsibly.
"The disease of addiction, if you have it, it makes it where it's difficult to talk about it. I know that my patients have trouble talking about it. You have to understand that, and take the initiative to know that they may not be able to be forthcoming, and if you want to treat them safely, you have to check that database to make sure you're doing something safe," said Dr. Gaskins.
Now, police in Savannah will soon be the latest agency to combat opioid overdoses on the front lines.
By this summer, 400 Metro police officers will be trained to carry rescue devices like this. They administer a drug called naloxone - or narcan - that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. The Medical Association of Georgia Foundation is paying for the units and doctors are volunteering time to train officers on how to use the devices.
"So that when they are the first person on the scene, when someone is not breathing from an opioid dependency overdose, that they will be able to respond and save a life," said Dr. Gaskin.
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