'Deaths of despair' on the rise across the country, report finds

United States map atlas
There are still significant healthcare disparities between states, according to a new report. (Pixabay)

The number of Americans who are dying so-called "deaths of despair" are on the rise significantly, with the rate of deaths from suicide, alcoholism, opioid addiction or other drug abuse up by 50% in a decade, according to a new report from The Commonwealth Fund.

Death of despair rates at least doubled in Delaware, Ohio, New Hampshire, New York and Virginia between 2005 and 2016, according to the 2018 Scorecard on State Health System Performance released Thursday by the nonprofit and nonpartisan health resarch organization. 

This year's scorecard was the first that dove into rates of "deaths of despair" beyond suicide, David Radley, Ph.D., a senior scientist in the Commonwealth Fund's Tracking Health System Performance program and the report's lead author, told FierceHealthcare. 

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"It was shocking to see how much worse every state in the country is getting on this measure," Radley said.

The scorecard also found rising death and obesity rates remain key public health challenges across the country, as well as significant disparities between states. States were scored on a number of factors such as access, affordability, preventive care and avoidable hospital use.

The report found that the highest-ranking states overall in health system quality—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont and Utah—performed about twice as well on average when compared to the lowest ranking states—West Virginia, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. 

RELATED: When it comes to healthcare, U.S. once again ranks last in quality of care compared to other wealthy nations 

States are assuming a greater role in driving and setting health policy, the report notes, so it's crucial to track trends at the state level in addition to nationwide. 

Though some states have seen improvement, several issues remain a challenge across the country, according to the report.

Premature deaths are  increasing, according to the report. People across the country are dying from preventable conditions, resulting in more than 3,500 preventable deaths between 2014 and 2015. In Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wyoming, preventable death rates increased by more than 5%. 

RELATED: A new public health crisis—Preventable harm in healthcare 

Mental healthcare access gaps are also common, according to the study. Across all states, between 41% and 66% of people with symptoms of mental illness were untreated between 2013 and 2015. 

The findings weren't all bad, however. The researchers found that many states made gains in care access and noted improvements in nursing home and home health care. The improvements in care access were attributed to reductions in the number of people without insurance, particularly in states that expanded Medicaid.

This will remain a crucial issue for researchers to track, as there is push for change in health policy, Radley said. He said future reports will also dive more into how the rise of high-deductible health plans and increasing coinsurance payments impact access and patients' healthcare spending.

The report found that the use of antipsychotic medications to restrain nursing home patients declined in almost every state between 2013 and 2016, and the number of home health patients with improved mobility rose across the country.