ROCKINGHAM — A left-leaning group is using nearly decade-old statistics on opioid distribution in a call for the expansion of Medicaid — blaming state Republican politicians for the lack of “affordable health care access to rural districts.”
Progress NC Action issued a press release Tuesday featuring numbers from a Drug Enforcement Agency database, saying it “shows the pipeline which opioid manufacturers use to funnel addictive pain pills into our communities, incentivizing doctors and pharmacies to over-prescribe the drug in order to keep their customer base hooked.”
OPIOIDS BY THE NUMBERS
Richmond County ranks among the highest in the state for the number of opioid pills supplied per person, according to information from the DEA recently released by the Washington Post.
The database, published by the Post, shows there were 74.5 pills per person, per year distributed in the county from 2006-2012 — for a total of 24,199,340.
The pills included oxycodone, hydrocodone and percocet.
The four counties that had a higher per-person, per-year average were: Columbus (113); Surry (81); Mitchell (78); and Cherokee (77).
During that six-year period, the two main distributors were N.C. Mutual Drug Wholesale Co. (8,663,900 pills) and Wal-Mart (3,854,300).
The top manufacturers were SpecGx LLC (11,819,300) and Actavis Pharma (6,202,500).
When it comes to pharmacies, Mabry’s Drug and Home Care received 4,499,740 pills, the most of any pharmacy in the county, followed by Medical Center Pharmacy (4,106,660) and Wal-Mart Pharmacy (3,938,120).
All other pharmacies, including Birmingham Drug Company and Ellerbe Pharmacy, received fewer than 2 million. Eckerd, which is no longer in business, received the fewest of all he pharmacies (470,500).
The Richmond County doctor who received the most opioids doesn’t even work with people.
Veterinarian Dr. William H. Cooley received 20,300 pills, according to the DEA. The second-highest doctoral recipient was Dr. William Roy Peele, a dentist (7,100).
The other four listed are medical doctors in Hamlet: Dr. Dion Arthur (5,030), Dr. Lauren Alter (2,600); Dr. Melva Bowman (400); and Doctor Fred McQueen (120).
However, more recent statistics show those numbers continued to rise.
Records with the state County Leadership Forum on Opioid Abuse show that in 2016, the number of pills per person had nearly doubled to 132.2 — also nearly double the state’s average of 78.3.
County Health Director Dr. Tommy Jarrell on Tuesday provided updated statistics from 2017.
According to Jarrell, there were 5,225,000 opioid pills dispensed that year — which is greater than a million more than the per-year average from the aforementioned DEA records.
Jarrell added that there were six unintentional opioid deaths recorded in Richmond County in 2017.
“This number has slowly declined, although it remains very high and alarming,” he said. “Locally, the Richmond County Drug Endangered Task Force has been established and has been very active in addressing this epidemic.
Jarrell said the county commissioners have declared the opioid epidemic as a Public Health Emergency. Last year, they voted to join other counties in a lawsuit against manufacturers.
“While we are encouraged that the number of pills dispensed are declining,” Jarrell said, “we remain very alarmed at the very high number that continue to be dispensed in our county and the impact opioids have on our community.”
The expansion of Medicaid has been a rally cry of the left for several years and was one of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s main reasons for vetoing the budget last month.
Progress NC Action points out that many of the counties with high opioid numbers are represented by Republicans who are against expansion.
The group even calls out Sens. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, by name since their counties (which also include Surry and Scotland) are in the top 10 for most pills per person per year during the DEA’s time period.
“Opioid manufacturers are making a killing — literally — by funneling addictive pain pills into poor, rural communities in our state,” said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress NC Action. “By refusing to expand Medicaid, GOP lawmakers are essentially voting to prolong the opioid crisis by making it harder for people — including some of their own constituents — to get the affordable health care and drug treatment they need.”
(Note: During the six-year period of statistics, Richmond County was represented in the state Senate by William Purcell and later by Gene McLaurin, both Democrats, before McInnis was elected in 2014.)
A request to McInnis’ office for a statement wasn’t returned Tuesday afternoon.
However, McInnis was a supporter of the STOP Act to limit the availability of opioids and develop tracking systems. The bill passed both houses unanimously and was signed by the governor in 2017.
Berger, in response to a claim that Medicaid expansion would result in fewer emergency room visits, issued a statement citing a medical journal article rebutting that claim.
“Expanding Medicaid is not good policy, and it is not the silver bullet that proponents sell it as,” he said in a statement. “But regardless of what I think, these are discussions that can and should be had during a special legislative session dedicated exclusively to health care access issues, including Gov. Cooper’s top priority of solutions that provide access to health coverage for the working poor. It is irresponsible to hold up the entire state budget over this one issue. Let’s stop the hostage-taking and pass a budget.”