- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia’s emergency rooms are seeing a dramatic spike this year in the number of patients seeking treatment for heroin overdoses, state data shows.

The state’s emergency departments reported nearly 500 visits in the first four months of 2016 with unintentional heroin overdose as the primary complaint or diagnosis at discharge, according to data provided to The Associated Press data the Virginia Department of Health.

That’s roughly two-and-a half times the number of emergency department visits for heroin overdoses reported over the same period last year.

The figures are a concern, health officials say, and point to a surge in heroin abuse in Virginia and elsewhere due in part to policies that have made it harder for addicts to get prescription painkillers.

“What we’ve done is closed one door and opened a potential door which is now being filled by this illicit market of heroin,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Marissa Levine. “I do worry about the ongoing impact in terms of what hospitals can do and then what does it mean … for people seeking emergency care.”

Health officials and lawmakers have sought to curb prescription painkiller abuse by urging more providers to use the state’s prescription monitoring program, among other steps. Meanwhile, a task force established by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association’s board of directors recently released guidelines for providers in emergency departments in an effort to combat the improper use of prescriptions.

But fighting illicit heroin use has proved more difficult.

The number of deaths caused by prescription opioid overdoses remained relatively flat between 2014 and 2015, according to preliminary figures released by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in April. At the same time, heroin overdose deaths grew from 239 in 2014 to 344 last year, the office says.

Matthew Rhames, an emergency room doctor at Fauquier Health and Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, said the heroin overdose data is consistent with what providers are seeing on the ground.

“I talk closely with my partners and we get concerned about trends,” said Rhames, who’s also president of the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine. “The general feeling is: ‘Gosh, it seems like we’re seeing more of these.’”

The emergency department data captures visits at most of Virginia’s hospitals and free-standing emergency departments. Heroin-related visits remain less than 1 percent of all emergency department trips, but the percentage has been increasingly steadily since 2010, the data shows.

The actual number of emergency room trips caused by heroin overdoses is likely much higher than reported because patients often will say only that they are suffering from overdose and won’t specify what drug they were using, said Emily Stephens, enhanced surveillance analyst for the Virginia Department of Health.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aedurkinricher . Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer.

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