2017-08-04 / Community

Report: Overdoses remain prevalent

85 to 100 people die each year in Ventura County
By Angela Dawson
Special to the Acorn


TOO HARD TO RESIST—Ventura County is not immune to the heroin/ opiate epidemic sweeping the nation, a recent study found. And it’s not just teens and college-age people who are dying. The average age of opiate-related overdose victims in Ventura County in 2015: 47. TOO HARD TO RESIST—Ventura County is not immune to the heroin/ opiate epidemic sweeping the nation, a recent study found. And it’s not just teens and college-age people who are dying. The average age of opiate-related overdose victims in Ventura County in 2015: 47. Overdose deaths from prescribed opioid medications such as oxycodone and fentanyl—as well as heroin, to which many painkiller addicts turn—continue to plague Ventura County.

The Ventura County Behavioral Health Department is hoping to tackle the crisis head-on with the recent formation of a multi-agency Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Workgroup.

The task force released a report this month that contains new findings about the state of the local opioid crisis—and a glimmer of hope in the county’s efforts to stem the tide of accidental deaths.

Using data collected from the county medical examiner’s office through 2015, the report shows that the number of overdose deaths related to prescription drugs remained relatively level, fluctuating between 85 and 100 deaths annually over a five-year period.


TRENDING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION—Awareness seems to be increasing among Ventura County’s youth about the dangers of prescription painkillers. Since 2008, the percentage of high school juniors who said they’d used the drugs to get high has dropped from 22 percent to 14 percent. TRENDING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION—Awareness seems to be increasing among Ventura County’s youth about the dangers of prescription painkillers. Since 2008, the percentage of high school juniors who said they’d used the drugs to get high has dropped from 22 percent to 14 percent. Fifty-eight percent of the overdoses were the result of prescription opioids and additional prescribed drugs. Overdose deaths often are related to more than one substance, often unintentional, the report said.

One notable trend is that a greater percentage of females—44 percent in 2014 compared with 35 percent in 2012—were among the OD victims. Also, the average age of overdoses for both sexes rose by three years, to age 47, during that time.

Opioid use and overdose don’t discriminate in terms of race, gender, age or socioeconomic status, according to those who deal with the crisis on a daily basis. Anyone can become addicted.

The report’s findings, which will be further analyzed in the coming weeks to include complete 2015 and 2016 numbers, will be used in guiding the county’s multi-pronged approach to fighting opioid abuse.

One goal is to raise awareness about the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, known as CURES (Controlled substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System).

“We’ve been encouraging physicians, along with our law enforcement partners, to utilize the CURES system every time they meet with a client that potentially has one of these needs,” said Patrick Zarate, chief operations officer of the county’s behavioral health department.

“It has information and data that the provider would find helpful, and it also is being expressed to the patient not as just a best practice but, ultimately, getting the best-quality care,” Zarate said.

Another objective is to encourage residents to safely discard unused prescription medication to keep it out of the wrong hands.

“We’ve had an amazing collaboration with our sheriff’s office and are encouraging other law enforcement agencies to facilitate safe drug collection and disposal as well,” said Daniel Hicks, manager of the Behavioral Health Department, Alcohol and Drug Programs, Prevention Services.

But because it’s voluntary, the CURES registry isn’t foolproof.

“The fact is, no physician can reliably know exactly where a patient has been before,” said Zarate, alluding to a practice known as “doctor shopping,” where patients visit several physicians to gain multiple prescriptions for the same drug.

Zarate is encouraged by other findings in the report. For example, the percentage of 11thgraders who say they have used a prescription painkiller to get high declined from 2008 to 2016.

The health official said the work group brought in stakeholders from the private and public sectors to discuss the addiction issue.

“There is no single solution to this problem,” Zarate said.

Case study

For some in the county who deal with substance abusers on a daily basis, the crisis is far from over.

“Honestly, I don’t see any change,” said Stuart Birnbaum, CEO of Lakehouse Recovery Center, a six-bed facility in Westlake Village.

“When people come to us, they need help,” said Birnbaum, who started one of the country’s first outpatient opioid treatment programs in 2003. “Most of them are in crisis and have their backs to the wall.”

Birnbaum said his recovery center usually operates at capacity and gets calls every day from people in the community seeking help. Most of them are local residents with jobs, families and an addiction they can’t overcome on their own, he said.

Another Lakehouse spokesperson said he’s amazed and disturbed by the “readiness” with which physicians and other prescribers are willing to offer powerful opioids to unsuspecting patients. The findings in the report reveal that addiction can come within four to five days of taking opioids.

Lakehouse’s clients range in age from 8 to 80. Some never used alcohol or abused prescription medication until they became addicted after an injury or surgery.

One of the residents in the facility’s 28-day program said he grew up around people with addiction in Thousand Oaks and, from his vantage point, the epidemic is getting worse.

But there is hope.

A woman who went through recovery at Lakehouse said what really works is the center’s “show me rather than tell me how to live a sober life” approach.

The facility’s operators stay in touch with their “alumni” and are active in the community. Assistant director Cainan Oliver works with local teens in his spare time as a way to keep them from ever needing a place like Lakehouse.

Birnbaum believes education and awareness work, but only to an extent.

“The bottom line is, I don’t see any abatement,” he said.

Health official Hicks said one of the things he wants to further examine are the settings and circumstances of nonfatal overdoses.

“Sometimes, they’re senior citizens who have an adverse medication reaction,” he said. “That’s a message—to educate a certain population.”

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