BOSTON — A multi-state database that allows doctors to check a patient’s prescription history is helping to curb the use of opioid painkillers, health officials said Wednesday.
Data released by state Department of Public Health shows opioid prescriptions have declined 28 percent in the past three years.
Doctors wrote about 638,000 prescriptions for Schedule II opioids, such as OxyContin and Percocet, from April 1 through June 30 of this year. That compares to about 841,990 prescriptions written during the first three months of 2015.
Prescriptions have been declining steadily since mid-2015, according to the department.
Last year, Massachusetts joined with 31 states — including the rest of New England and New York — in agreeing to share prescription data. Physicians have searched the new system 6.5 million times.
Mary Lou Sudders, state secretary of Health and Human Services, said the prescription decline is a sign of progress in the war against opioid abuse.
“Too many residents have died during this epidemic, and far too many began their addiction through the misuse of opioid medication,” she said.
More than 2,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts last year. Essex and Middlesex counties have been hit particularly hard.
Recent data show the number of fatal overdoses involving prescription drugs in Massachusetts has fallen, however, relative to the number blamed on heroin and fentanyl.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation last year setting a seven-day limit on new opioid prescriptions, mandating emergency room evaluations of anyone treated for an overdose, and requiring doctors to consult the prescription monitoring database each time they prescribe an additive opioid.
Physicians played a key role in fueling the opioid crisis by overprescribing highly addictive medicines, according to substance abuse counselors and public health experts.
“Finally, with all the attention that is being paid to opioid abuse, doctors are getting educated,” said Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learn to Cope, an advocacy group that counsels families of addicts. “Many of the people who get addicted to prescription opioids are people who didn’t need them in the first place.”
Physicians say they’re doing their part to curb opioid misuse, while balancing the medical needs of patients.
“In our efforts to assuage pain, all of us may have written prescriptions in the past which contained more pills than were necessary,” said Dr. Henry Dorkin, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “We are learning from this, and we’re far better than we were several years ago.”
Dorkin said improved communication among prescribers is helping to reduce “doctor shopping” by addicts.
The state medical society offers free online courses for physicians and other prescribers on how to manage pain without overusing opioids; how to screen for substance abuse; and pursuing alternative therapies to opioids. About 12,000 prescribers have participated in the program.
Nationally physicians also are prescribing opioids less often, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2010 to 2015, annual prescribing rate by doctors dropped from 81 prescriptions per 100 people to 71 prescriptions per 100 people, according to a CDC report.
Still, the CDC says doctors prescribe too many opioids, in too large amounts.
Recent news reports have highlighted the pharmaceutical industry’s role in fueling the opioid crisis. An investigation by The Washington Post and CBS News that aired on “60 Minutes” this past Sunday revealed how drug companies pushed a law approved by Congress in 2016 that critics say weakened the government’s ability to stop distribution of highly addictive opioids.
The law, approved without opposition in the House and Senate and signed by then-President Barack Obama, makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments, according to the report.
Previously, agents could stop narcotics shipments that posed an “imminent danger.” Now, they must prove the “substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a higher bar that officials say is difficult to meet, the report revealed.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Penn., withdrew his name from consideration following the “60 Minutes” reports showing his role in writing the law.
Still, Marino posted a statement Tuesday defending his support for the changes.
“This landmark legislation will help to facilitate a balanced solution for ensuring those who genuinely needed access to certain medications were able to do so, while also empowering the Drug Enforcement Agency to enforce the law and prevent the sale and abuse of prescription drugs,” his statement read.
Peterson, of Learning to Cope, said she was was upset, but not surprised, by the revelations.
“We’ve known for many years that the pharmaceutical companies have had a role in the opioid crisis,” she said. “This is merely confirmation of that.”
Some states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have sued drug companies for aggressive marketing and sales practices.
Pain management groups say regulatory backlash has made some doctors worried about writing prescriptions for opioids, which is depriving some patients of needed treatments.
Phil Lahey, who oversees the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, called the decline in opioid prescriptions a positive sign but said there’s still work to be done to holding pharmaceutical companies and physicians accountable.
“We’re in the midst of the worst drug addiction epidemic in the nation’s history, but we are still overprescribing,” he said. “It needs to be stopped.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.