Mental health experts told a legislative study committee Monday that Indiana must stop an invisible epidemic of prescription drug abuse that drags down not only hardcore addicts but people suffering from chronic pain and well-intentioned doctors who are simply out of their depth.
Attorney General Greg Zoeller said prescription drug abuse in the U.S. is bigger than cocaine, heroin and hallucinogen abuse combined. In 2011, Indiana had 718 deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs, he said.
The trouble is sifting addicts from patients who legitimately require powerful painkillers like Oxycontin.
“I know it’s huge,” said Kathleen O’Connell, a commission member who also works as director of nursing at a Fort Wayne hospital. “As a nurse, I also know there are a group of people out there who have to take these medicines every day.”
The state needs more doctors trained to recognize drug dependency, Dr. Andy Chambers, chief of Indiana University Medical School’s psychiatry department, told the Commission on Mental Health and Association.
While some said that meant more pain experts, Chambers said Indiana has only a few psychiatrists who are also trained to treat addiction.
One side of the problem, experts said, is addicts who have learned to game the system by obtaining and filling multiple prescriptions which they then can either use themselves or sell on the black market. And another side is general practitioners who are too quick to prescribe powerful painkillers without realizing the danger of addiction.
With the right mix of mental health treatment and medical care, addicts can be weaned off their dependency and find their lives have improved, said Dr. Lindsay Harmon of IU Health.
Questioned by legislators about what the state is already doing, Andrea Vern, assistant director of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction, said Indiana has more than 200 certified community mental health providers spread across the state.
But, she said: “There’s a big difference between the number of providers we have and the number we have fund for.”