Rate of hospitalizations for opioid overdoses rising rapidly in Pa.

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     (Toby Talbot/AP Photo, File)

    (Toby Talbot/AP Photo, File)

    Many who overdose on an opioid in Pennsylvania never need to go to a hospital. Some are treated by first responders, or bystanders who carry naloxone, a drug that can halt an overdose before it becomes fatal.

    Some succumb without help.

    But a growing number of Pennsylvanians are winding up as hospital patients as the result of opioids — 66 percent more in 2016 than in 2014. The numbers do not include emergency room visits.

    These “alarming” findings come from a new report by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, which crunches hospital spending data.

    “The problem, particularly on the heroin side, continues to get much worse,” said Joe Martin, executive director of the council, which has produced three reports on the subject.

    In 2003, 278 people were hospitalized due to a heroin overdose, compared with more than 1,500 people in 2015, according to Martin. The number of people admitted for overdosing on prescription pain medication was even higher in 2016.

    The cost of those hospitalizations has more than doubled since 2012 — Martin estimated it was $27 million last year — much of it coming from taxpayer-funded programs including Medicaid, Medicare and state-subsidized coverage.

    Martin says his big takeaway is that, in spite of a lot of political energy to combat the opioid crisis, a turnaround in this trend is far off.

    “We have not gotten our arms around this. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, on the pain medication side, but it’s still way too high,” he said.

    That light could come in the form of drug-monitoring databases to track patients who receive prescription opioid medications and other policies to keep legal drugs from being overprescribed or diverted.

    The largest insurer in the Philadelphia region, Independence Blue Cross, just announced a new policy to give new patients only five days’ worth of opioids on the first prescription. The idea is to make patients check in with doctors before getting more pills and lessen the chance people will sell these medicines on the black market.

    This disclosure: Independence Blue Cross supports WHYY.

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