- Associated Press - Saturday, February 1, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in Pennsylvania, and legislators and law enforcement officials are scrambling to address the rapidly growing problem.

“I think we’re in a culture in which everything gets fixed - there is no level of uncomfortableness that we think we should have to endure,” said Elaine Stano, treatment specialist with the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission, referring to the use of prescription narcotics for pain relief. “It’s a quick way to alleviate discomfort. There’s just an idea that we don’t ever have to be uncomfortable, and I think that’s a major reason drugs are a problem.”

Addiction to prescription pills - mainly to narcotic painkillers such as oxycodone, sold as Percocet and other brands, and hydrocodone, sold as Vicodin and other brands - has proven to be more deadly than some illegal drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, prescription drug overdoses in 2007 resulted in four times as many deaths as heroin overdoses and twice as many as cocaine. And that trend has continued.

Across the region, the number of overdose deaths from prescription and illegal drugs has increased dramatically, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Health Statistics and Research, with Fayette County leading the way.

Fayette County has one of the highest death rates from drug overdoses in the country, more than that of West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of overdose deaths in the nation.

And in Westmoreland County, drug overdose deaths for the first time have surpassed all other types of unnatural deaths combined, including car accidents, homicides and fires.

In 2011, the most recent data available for research, drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County totaled 243, a rate of 20.5 per 100,000 residents. That’s up from 2010 and 2009, when 228 and 222 people died from overdoses, respectively. Compare that to the rate in 1990, when 87 people, or 6.3 per 100,000 residents, died of an overdose in the county.

The numbers for outlying counties also have climbed. In 1990, a total of 18 people died of drug overdoses in six counties in the region - Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland.

Three of the 18 died in Fayette County that year. By 2009, the number in Fayette County had reached 23. It rose to 28 in 2010, then to 43 in 2011 - representing 33.5 per 100,000 residents, surpassing West Virginia’s nation-leading rate of 28.9 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.

“I think we have some stronger prescription drugs now,” said Jana Kyle, executive director of the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission, about the increase in that county. “We have Opana, oxymorphone, Oxycontin . Doctors prescribe these highly addictive drugs and aren’t aware that people are becoming addicted.”

In the region’s other counties, the number of overdose deaths from both prescription and illegal drugs in 2011 was, listed from the highest rate to lowest: Greene, 10 deaths, or 28.2 per 100,000 residents; Beaver, 37 deaths, or 24.2 per 100,000 residents; Washington, 40 deaths, or 21.2 per 100,000 residents; Westmoreland, 78 deaths, or 20.4 per 100,000; and Butler, 30 deaths, or 17 per 100,000 residents.

All counties in southwestern Pennsylvania outpace the state in the number of deaths per 100,000 people. Statewide, the rate is 15.3 - 14th highest in the nation, according to a recent study by the nonprofit, Trust for America’s Health.

In Westmoreland County, Coroner Ken Bacha is on a mission to educate the public about prescription drug abuse.

“If you take all of the other types of unnatural death and put them together, they don’t equal the number of drug overdoses we had in 2013,” he said of his county.

When Bacha took office in 2002, 22 people died of drug overdoses that year, mostly from heroin use. In less than 10 years, that number had risen to 78 deaths. Last year, the county saw about 92 people die from drug overdoses, and so far in 2014, seven people are suspected to have died as a result of a drug overdose.

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