More than 200 prescription pill overdoses and twice as many methamphetamine labs discovered statewide within the past two years have health leaders mobilizing to curb the drug they say is surging in South Carolina and gaining speed in York County.
“Pill mill” doctors and physicians who unwittingly satisfy their pill-addicted patients helped contribute to the 250 opiate overdoses reported in the state last year, said S.C. Inspector Gen. Patrick Maley at Winthrop University on Tuesday.
With 32 overdose deaths reported last year, York County is an “anomaly” compared to neighborhing counties that report steady rising numbers of opiate pill abuse, Maley told a ballroom full of health agency leaders, educators, law enforcement officials and medical professionals gathered at the All On Board coalition’s prescription/medicine abuse summit.
But the county isn’t immune.
More than 67,000 patients went to Piedmont Medical Center’s emergency department last year – 429 of them reported suffering from drug overdoses, said Tiffany Sharpe, a clinical supervisor and educator for the hospital’s emergency department.
“That’s a big number,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe audited 200 random overdose charts and found that only 14 didn’t involve some type of prescription pain pill usage. Of the 14 non-pain pill drug overdoses reported, six involved cocaine, four involved heroin and four involved K2 spice synthetic marijuana, she said.
Doctors who don’t want to be on the receiving end of complaints – which can escalate from simple requests to patients shouting profanities – fuel the problem, Sharpe explained, when they prescribe narcotics that keep patients happy.
The addicts, Sharpe said, “know how to work the system.” When reporting to the hospital, some patients ask for specific doctors who they know will give them the meds they want.
Those doctors are called “the candy man,” Sharpe said.
The patients know “while they’re there, he’ll keep them comfortable and quiet,” she said.
States such as Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida are no longer quiet, Maley said, having seen a reduction in overdoses after implementing statewide regulations targeted at physicians.
It’s South Carolina’s turn, he said.
In the coming weeks, Maley plans to present Gov. Nikki Haley with proposals to create safeguards against patients yearning for their next fix of narcotics.
Those suggestions will include steps for implementing a statewide prescription monitoring system allowing doctors’ staff to pull comprehensive prescription history data for every patient reporting to their practice.
Addiction “starts at the prescription pad,” Maley said. Opiates “are hitting the streets” because “busy” doctors acting in “good faith” prescribe pills without considering a patient’s past history of using pain medications.
“They use their best judgment,” Maley said.
A clearinghouse of patients’ prescription history, cross-referenced with pharmacies, will give doctors information they need before writing a prescription while also putting “pill mill” doctors out of business, he said.
Still, Maley suggested averting the pill crisis won’t come with just a printout from a computer. Doctors, he said, need to develop relationships with their patients and be open to state involvement.
If prescription practices don’t change, Maley said, he fears the body count will rise.
Meth lab numbers rising
Also on the rise is the number of metamphetamine labs state authorities are shutting down.
In 2011, 267 small meth lab seizures put South Carolina last in the list of the top 10 states with frequent meth lab busts, said Lt. Max Dorsey II of the State Law Enforcement Division.
A year later, that number more than doubled with officials reportedly shutting down 538 meth labs throughout the state, Dorsey said. So far this year, officials have reported seizing 100 labs.
At least 16 of those labs have been in York County, Dorsey said, and three of those have been busted within the last three weeks.
Most of these labs are operated by users who buy their materials from local food marts and pharmacies and employ “smurfers” to combine the chemicals together in “mom and pop” labs.
A map showing geographic data for lab busts from July 1, 2011, to Feb. 28, 2013, shows that the Piedmont region, including York County, has averaged the most meth labs seized in a nearly two-year period.
That’s because the area for years has had “a taste for meth” and a consistent customer base, Dorsey said after his presentation.
Compared to Greenville’s 100 lab busts, 16 meth labs might not sound significant, Dorsey said, but he added that five or six years ago, the county probably only had two.
Another map Dorsey showed attendees earned gasps: 144 children have been removed from meth labs in the same two years, Dorsey said, including one in York County.
Once removed from the lab, those children have to be “decontaminated,” medically screened and then placed all within hours of their removal.
“Think of the ones that we’re not aware of,” he said.
Stopping meth labs from popping up isn’t just a “law enforcement problem,” Dorsey said, adding that agency leaders should encourage legislators to enact laws requiring people to present a doctor’s prescription before buying cold medicines with pseudophedrines, a key ingredient in meth.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082