VCU study: Heroin, prescription painkiller overdoses kill two Virginians every day

vcuNearly 80 percent of the almost 1,000 fatal drug overdoses in Virginia in 2014 involved prescription painkillers or heroin, known as opioids, according to a new policy brief by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Drug overdoses claim the lives of nearly three times as many Virginians annually as do homicides. Conservative estimates indicate untreated substance abuse costs Virginia state and local governments more than $600 million annually in public safety and health care services alone, according to the policy brief.

“Virginia’s opioid epidemic and untreated substance abuse are killing hundreds of Virginians and costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars each year,” said brief lead author Andrew Barnes, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy. The department conducts independent, nonpartisan analyses of major national and state health policy issues.

“The opioid epidemic has created a public health and public safety crisis in Virginia and needs immediate policy action,” said Katherine Neuhausen, M.D., associate director in the VCU Office of Health Innovation and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health.

Mirroring national trends, deaths from prescription opioid and heroin overdoses increased 38 percent in the state between 2012 and 2014, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Common prescription opioid painkillers include hydrocodone, which is generic for Vicodin, and oxycodone, which is generic for OxyContin.

According to the policy brief, opioid abuse is increasing in Virginia because of a plentiful prescription opioid drug supply, lack of awareness of the issue among the public and health care providers, and limited treatment availability.

While deaths from prescription opioid and heroin overdoses are occurring statewide, especially hard-hit areas include the southwest, the southside, Hampton Roads, metro Richmond, the Shenandoah Valley and the north.

Virginia’s Medicaid program spent $26 million on opioid use and misuse in 2013, with $10 million of this spending occurring in southwest Virginia. At least 40,000 adults in Virginia’s Medicaid program have a substance abuse disorder, and more than 50 percent of Medicaid enrollees with a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder.

The cost of opioid addiction is particularly high in the Southwest Health Planning Region of Virginia, which accounts for 42 percent of Medicaid spending on emergency department and inpatient hospital services related to opioid abuse — more than twice the amount of any other region in the state.

The new policy brief from VCU’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy is available online at

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