Colorado hospitals unite to combat opioid abuse as crisis reaches unprecedented levels

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A new Colorado plan helps physicians prescribe fewer opioids by giving them guidelines for pain management without narcotics.

The opioid crisis has reached unprecedented levels, driving up the death rates for almost all groups of Americans. A wave of overdoses hit Georgia last week and the epidemic led Maryland in March to declare a state of emergency. And now hospitals in one state are banding together to do something about it.

Opioids will not be the first resort for physicians to control patient pain under a new pilot program in Colorado that combines a number of federal, state and association guidelines into one bundle, reports The Denver Post.

The plan helps physicians prescribe fewer opioids by giving them condition-specific guidelines for pain management without narcotics. Don Stader, M.D., an emergency physician at Swedish Medical Center, told the publication that the plan won’t eliminate opioids altogether but will help reduce the number of opioid prescriptions written to relieve a patient’s pain.

The pilot program also calls on hospitals and emergency rooms to consider putting patients who have an opioid addiction on medication-assistant therapy instead of telling them to find a rehab clinic.  Advocates hope the program will cut off the major pathway to addiction, which often begins when patients receive a pain medication for an injury, such as a sprained ankle.

“I don’t know of anywhere that has guidelines this comprehensive,” Robert Valuck, director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, told The Denver Post. “It’s more of a leap than a step, and that is new.”

In addition to helping patients directly, Valuck said he hopes the program will also cut off a major pathway for addiction. While most people who become addicted to opioids start by using prescription pills, only a minority of those start with pills prescribed to them. Many others start by using loose pills left over from a prescription and stuffed away in a medicine cabinet.

It may be something hospitals in other states want to consider. A Washington Post analysis of mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in the past 17 years, death rates have risen among people between the ages of 25 and 44 in virtually every racial and ethnic group and almost all states. The deaths, the report said, were driven in many cases by drug overdoses and alchohol abuse.

“What it reflects is an out-of-control epidemic right now,” Josh Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins, told the publication. “It’s affecting the economy. It’s affecting the entire community. This is an absolute call to action for public health.”

Maryland recorded its biggest increase in drug- and alcohol-related deaths in 2016, according to a second Washington Post article. In some cases it is due to a deadly combination of heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, some are worried that Republicans in the House and Senate may consider cuts to Medicaid that may threaten addiction treatment offered through the federal health insurance program, NPR reports. The Republican healthcare bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May reduced Medicaid spending by more than $800 billion over a 10-year period.

RELATED: Trump’s budget proposal to slash $800B from Medicaid; AHCA’s potential impact on Medicare

Sarah Kawasaki, M.D., told NPR she worries that if lawmakers reduce funding, more people will die from overdoses.

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