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February 14, 2014

Local coroner among those saying growing victims of drug abuse are usually adults

HARRISBURG — Public service announcements warn parents of children raiding the medicine cabinet to get high, but coroners say a growing number of victims of drug deaths are parents, themselves.

Cambria County last year recorded an overdose death almost every week, compared to 29 deaths a year earlier, coroner Dennis Kwiatkowski said. In Crawford County, overdose deaths increased from 32 in 2012 to 41 last year, coroner Scott Schell said.

Many victims were in their 40s and older, the coroners said.

State officials trying to intervene say they’re grappling with a hydra of drug addiction that increasingly afflicts older people.

Law enforcement and health officials also say prescription drug and heroin problems are related. In many cases, addiction to medication drives people to heroin, Attorney General Kathleen Kane told a Senate committee this week.

However, the two western Pennsylvania coroners said most of the overdoses they’re seeing are from prescription drugs.

Schell said he’s responded to overdoses of people in their 60 to 70s. He described the victims as “old hippies” who’ve probably used illicit drugs their entire adult lives.

Kwiatkowski said many overdoses involve dosages that barely enter the lethal range. Often, the drugs are mixed with alcohol.

National research supports the coroners’ accounts. The largest increase in chronic, non-medical use of opioid pain relievers was among people ages 26 to 49, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

The escalating trend of drug overdoses captured national attention two weeks ago with the death of 46-year-old actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, apparently from heroin. Investigators in New York at least initially tried to determine if Hoffman’s heroin was related to fentanyl-laced heroin that has been blamed for 22 deaths in western Pennsylvania.

Debbie Fowler of Hastings, who has advocated to prevent drug use among teens and children since 1998, said a wave of prescription overdoses among older people doesn’t surprise her. She’s aware of a recent case involving a 32-year-old man, she said.

Fowler became personally invested in the drug abuse problem one May morning in 1998, when she was surprised that her 18-year-old son, Adam, hadn’t risen by 11 a.m. She discovered his bedroom door locked. She picked the lock and found Adam dead on the floor next to his bed. Investigators later determined Adam had died of a heroin overdose.

Fowler created a nonprofit called Remembering Adam that teaches students about the dangers of substance abuse.

Fowler said she’s convinced her work has made an impact. But the broader war on drugs — including the state’s efforts to intervene — clearly is not succeeding, she said.

In 2012, the state created the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to lead the charge against substance abuse. The agency has begun its work — forming task forces to respond to overdoses and creating guidelines for doctors to use while medicating patients who complain of pain, said Gary Tennis, the department’s secretary, before a Senate committee this week.

But the extent of the drug problem is somewhat fuzzy.

State offices responsible for tracking the drug problem haven’t released data on overdoses since 2011, before Tennis’ department split from the Department of Health. Holli Senior, a Department of Health spokeswoman, said the agency hopes to have 2012 data available soon. She said the information on deaths does not come to the state in any uniform fashion, so it takes time for staff to compile the numbers.

Tennis told senators the inadequacy of data collection is “striking.”

While there is broad consensus that Pennsylvania has a real problem — the federal Centers for Disease Control says prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in the commonwealth — strategies for addressing it remain stuck in the Legislature.

Fowler said the state ought to adopt a real-time database that monitors prescriptions so that doctors and pharmacies can quickly identify pill-shopping addicts. Fowler’s husband, Dennis, operates Fowler’s Pharmacy in Hastings.

Kane, the attorney general, and Tennis both endorsed such a database in hearings before the Senate appropriations committee this week. The House has already approved it.

Meanwhile, the Senate has approved a bill to give immunity to people who call for help if they witness a drug user begin to overdose. That bill is now in the House.

Kane also endorses a third piece of legislation, which would create a state-issued, tamper-proof prescription form that would make it more difficult to forge prescriptions. A Senate bill to create such a form has been in committee for almost a year.

Apart from those measures, Tennis said one of the best means of gaining traction against prescription abuse and overdoses could come on another front.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to expand Medicaid would allow the state to use those funds to treat addicts who make less than 133 percent of the poverty level, he told the Senate committee.

Kane said the efforts to intervene are crucial.

“We don’t have to wait for people to die,” she said.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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