Drug overdose deaths 'epidemic' in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Numerous states, including Rhode Island, are reporting a rise in use of heroin and other opioids as many addicts shift from more costly and harder-to-get prescription opiates to this cheaper alternative. A look at what's happening in Rhode Island:

THE PROBLEM:

The Rhode Island Department of Health says the state is in the midst of a severe prescription and street-drug overdose crisis. Health Director Michael Fine calls it an "epidemic." Since the beginning of this year, 72 people have died of accidental overdoses, and many were using heroin or fentanyl, also an opioid.

THE NUMBERS:

Rhode Island Emergency Medical Services administered the overdose antidote Narcan 328 times between Jan. 1 and mid-March, said health department spokesman James Palmer.

The number of unique admissions for treatment for heroin addiction in Rhode Island rose 40 percent between 2009 and 2013 — from 5,454 to 7,642 — according to the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.

The number of hospital admissions for opiate overdose has climbed steadily in almost every year since 2005, when there were 198 people admitted with a primary diagnosis of opiate overdose. In 2012, the most recent year available, 534 people were admitted for opiate overdose, an increase of 170 percent. Emergency department visits for opiate overdose during the same period more than doubled, from 488 in 2005 to 994 in 2012.

THE RESPONSE:

Health and public safety officials have taken a number of steps in response. Fine last month issued emergency regulations to make Narcan, also known as naloxone, more widely available, including to law enforcement agencies. The regulations allow the antidote to be prescribed not only to a person experiencing an overdose or at risk of one, but to family members and friends in a position to assist.

Several police departments, including state police and some municipal departments, have begun assigning officers to carry and use Narcan, or have started training.

On Thursday, the health department issued another set of new regulations that requires health care professionals and hospitals to report all opiate overdoses or suspected overdoses to the health department within 48 hours. Fine says getting reports more quickly should help the state reduce the number of deaths and help addicts get treatment.

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