Report: West Virginia Leads U.S. in Prescription Drug Overdoses

Nearly 2,900 West Virginians have overdosed on prescription painkillers or heroin over the past five years, according to the state Health Statistics Center.

The center also said overdose deaths last year were the highest in West Virginia since 2011, and the state is on pace for a record year for OD deaths, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation at nearly 34 deaths per 100,000 people – more than twice the national average.

The release of the Health Statistics Center report comes ahead of President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit Wednesday to Charleston. He’ll lead a forum about the prescription drug and heroin abuse problem in West Virginia and other states.

The state’s drug problem is hobbling the economy, with West Virginia claiming the lowest workforce participation rate in the nation, Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said.

“With this degree of addiction in our workforce, we just cannot move ahead economically until we get this problem under control,” said Rohrbach, a doctor in Huntington. “You cannot be two or three times the rate of substance abuse compared to the rest of the nation and get businesses to move here. It’s just not going to happen.”

Cabell County is the epicenter of the state’s heroin epidemic. Health officials launched a needle-exchange program there and added more drug treatment options.

One prescription painkiller in particular has been behind the dramatic increase in: fentanyl. Doctors typically prescribe the drug in a patch that’s applied directly to a patient’s skin. Fentanyl also comes in a pill form or as a lozenge. It’s also being laced with heroin and injected, according to law enforcement officers. The combination can be deadly.

Through June, nearly 90 West Virginians have died of overdoses caused by fentanyl.

State Health Commissioner Rahul Gupta said he has received reports that criminals are manufacturing fentanyl in clandestine labs.

“Some of this fentanyl out there is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and heroin,” he said.

The Health Statistics Center compiles its drug overdose data from death certificates certified by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The overwhelming majority of overdose deaths involve combinations of multiple drugs.