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Maryland struggles for answers to wave of opioid overdoses

It's no secret that heroin and opioid prescription drugs have become major killers in Maryland. The past year saw a 21 percent increase in deaths statewide, for a total of 1,259. Opioid overdose death rates nationwide quadrupled between 1999 and 2014.

This despite the establishment of a Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force taking aim at reducing these numbers.

Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says it has become harder and more costly to obtain prescription opioids, but tightening supply has caused many users to turn to street heroin, which is cheaper and easier to obtain. Prescription painkiller users can get heroin or fentanyl near where they live, and often without much effort.

Another problem with opioid painkillers appears to be that some doctors are prescribing much too much of these drugs than other doctors. One pilot program has been writing letters to overprescribing doctors and reading them the riot act about prescribing opioids. But these warning letters are being roundly ignored.

Letter writing has been a common practice with other public health problems, such as the importance of vaccinations. But letters about overprescribing Vicodin and OxyCodone seem to fall on deaf ears. The letter-writing pilot had no effect whatsoever on these doctors' pres cribbing patterns.

Opioid drugs include tramadol, buprenorphine, methadone, diamorphine, fentanyl, hydromorphone, morphine, oxycodone, and pethidine.

So you probably can't make a dent in opioid use by writing letters to prescribing doctors. Something stronger may be indicated.

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