Gov. Ducey declares health crisis after opioid deaths rise

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Prescription opioids caused 482 deaths, compared to 308 for heroin in 2016. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Prescription opioids caused 482 deaths, compared to 308 for heroin in 2016. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (AP) -

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday declared a statewide opioid public health emergency in the wake of a new report that shows overdose deaths increased by 16 percent last year.

The governor's declaration will allow the state Department of Health Services to quickly develop a plan to require health providers to increase reporting on opioid-related deaths. That will allow the department to better understand how overdose deaths are happening and how to address the issue.

The order also allows the department to increase the availability of the opioid antidote naloxone, develop new prescribing guidelines, increase health care provider education and expand access to treatment.

Last week's report shows that 790 Arizonans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, more than two a day. Prescription opioids caused 482 deaths, compared with 308 for heroin. The number of overdose deaths in Arizona has gone up by nearly 75 percent since 2012, when 454 were reported.

"The governor is very alarmed by this. He has talked a lot about this issue. We've taken some action previously, both legislative and through our agencies," Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. "But he really sees this as something that we need to be even more aggressive on."

Dr. Cara Christ, who heads the health department, acknowledged that data on prescription overdose deaths is lacking. For instance, the department in many cases does not know if a prescription drug that led to an overdose was obtained illegally or through a doctor. A new drug overdose mortality review board created this year by the Legislature will ensure that all overdoses are investigated, and Monday's declaration will allow the department to collect more data quickly, she said.

"This declaration will allow us to get more information, more sharing and identify new reporting requirements that we need to get to that level of detail real-time," Christ said.

Opioid overdoses have become a national crisis, with state governments enacting new reporting requirements, tightening access to prescription drugs and even going after drug companies.

Last week, Ohio's attorney general sued five drugmakers, accusing the companies of causing the state's addiction epidemic by intentionally misleading patients about the dangers of painkillers and promoting benefits of the drugs not backed by science. A record 3,050 Ohioans died from drug overdoses in 2015, a figure expected to jump sharply once 2016 figures are tallied.

Attorney General Mike DeWine said the companies created a deadly mess in Ohio that they now need to pay to clean up.

Ducey's spokesman said his staff is reviewing the Ohio lawsuit and might consider similar action.

"We're going to go after this issue on all fronts," Scarpinato said. "We're currently reviewing the Ohio suit to see if there's a nexus on Arizona, and I think we'll have more on that to come. But certainly that is a piece of it, certainly those who are prescribing it are a piece of it, certainly illegal activity and drug transactions are a piece of it."

Christina Corieri, a Ducey policy adviser, said there was a 3 percent drop in the number of opioid prescriptions last year, something that she called a faint "bright spot."

"Still in 2016, there were more than 431 million opioid pills prescribed in the Arizona," Corieri said. "That's 62 pills for every man, woman and child in the state."

The governor has taken steps in the past couple of years to try to address the crisis. Among those efforts is legislation he signed requiring physicians to check a database to ensure patients aren't doctor shopping for narcotics and a bill allowing the opioid antidote naloxone, also known as Narcan, to be provided without a prescription.

He has also taken administrative action, creating a grant program for access to the antidote, Corieri said. So far, more than 6,200 kits have been distributed with more than 492 overdose reversals.

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