- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The state health department has secured a $1 million grant from federal officials to tackle Utah’s problem with prescription drug overdoses.

The state will use the money to improve a state database that tracks prescriptions and to evaluate the effectiveness of two new laws aimed at preventing overdose deaths, said Jenny Johnson, the Utah Department of Health’s violence and injury prevention program coordinator.

Utah has the fifth-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An average of 21 adults die monthly in Utah from prescription drug overdose, state figures show, with oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone being the main culprits.

The center this week announced it is giving $6 million in grants to Utah and four other states: Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The money will be given out over the next three years. It is the first time the department has received funding to specifically target prescription drug overdoses since 2010, when state funding dried up, Johnson said. “This is very much needed in our state to save lives,” Johnson said.

The first priority will be to close a gap in the state’s controlled substance database and provide doctors with real-time information about a patient’s prescription history, Johnson said.

Currently, there is about a two-week lag for prescription information to show up in the database, said Joel Millard, executive director of the Project Reality substance abuse treatment center in Salt Lake City.

“If they could speed it up so it’s real time, that would be great,” Millard said.

For many in Utah, misuse of prescription opiates like Oxytocin leads to future heroin addiction because it’s cheaper, mirroring a national trend.

The grant will also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of two new laws aimed at preventing drug overdoses, Johnson said.

One measure grants limited immunity from charges related to drug use or possession for someone reporting a drug overdose. More than a dozen states have such laws.

The other shelters people from liability if they act in good faith by giving Naloxone to a person who is having an opiate-related overdose. The law allows doctors to prescribe Naloxone to third parties such as parents, who would use it to save somebody who is overdosing, Johnson said.

Using money in the grant, Utah Department of Health officials will track how many people are taking advantage of the new laws and if there is a correlation in drug overdose deaths, Johnson said.

Millard is hopeful the work done using the grant money will help the state better understand why it has such a problem with overdose deaths.

“That’s a really good question that we’re all a bit puzzled by,” Millard said. “The kind of money they got will help us figure that out.”

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