Nationally, opioid overdose deaths continue to skyrocket but New Mexico, a long time leader in drug overdose deaths, has seen a slight decline.
State officials say that decline is, in part, due to better prescribing practices for opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone, as a result of a state law mandating that health care providers check a patient’s prescription history in the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) database when prescribing opioids.
“The policy interventions we have made as a state aim to end this drug epidemic and reduce the tragic loss of life in New Mexico,” said Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Lynn Gallagher. “Our concentrated efforts to reduce opioid over-prescribing is ultimately improving our ability to identify and offer help to those at risk.”
State Epidemiologist Michael Landen M.D., said in a telephone interview Friday that educating doctors and others who prescribe the drugs, as well as patients, about the dangers of chronic opioid use, is having an impact on the number of drug overdose deaths.
“Opioids were marketed as safe drugs that could be taken for a long time,” Landen said. “We’ve learned that there are real dangers associated with the chronic use of these drugs.”
According to the state Department of Health, the number of patients receiving high dose opioid prescriptions decreased by 17 percent over the past year.
And the number of patients with prescriptions for both opioids and benzodiazepines decreased by 19 percent. Mixing opioids with other medications like benzodiazepine tranquilizers such as Xanax or Valium increase a patient’s risk of overdose.
State licensing boards have adopted regulations requiring doctors and others to check the computerized PMP database before prescribing drugs such as Xanax.
The Department of Health recently reported a 4 percent decline in death rates due to overdose of commonly prescribed opioids, such as oxycodone, in 2017 compared to 2016. In addition, deaths due to heroin decreased by 9 percent, and deaths due to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, decreased by 6 percent over the same time period.
Nationwide drug overdose death rates increased by 21.5 percent.
Landen said he attributes the decline to better prescription monitoring, increased use of alternative medications for addicts and the increased availability of naloxone for people overdosing from heroin or other opioids.
Since 2013, the state has distributed over 70,000 nalaxone kits statewide and reports 385 overdose reversals due to administration of naloxone from the first quarter 2017 to the first quarter of 2018.
Naloxone is used as an emergency antidote for people overdosing from heroin and in smaller daily doses as a long term alternative drug to treat opioid addiction.
The state is also contacting doctors when they find a patient has died of an opioid overdose and tracking high use of opioid prescriptions.
“The reaction has been positive,” Landen said. “It is an opportunity to educate prescribers on lower risk alternatives to opioids.”
He said the National Safety Council has recognized New Mexico’s policies to combat opioid overdoses as some the best in the nation.
States on the East Coast, Midwest and South have seen opioid overdose death increase by more than 40 percent in recent years. Much of that is attributed to illegal fentanyl shipped from China to Mexican drug cartels and organized crime groups operating in Canada that smuggle the drug into the United States.
Fentanyl is mixed into counterfeit opioid pills, heroin and cocaine, which the Centers for Disease Control says likely contributes to increases in overdoses involving those drugs.
More than 72,000 people died in the United States from drug overdoses in 2017 and more than 49,000 of those deaths were attributed to opioids.