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Six times more opioids per person were being dispensed in the highest-prescribing counties compared with the lowest-prescribing counties.
The number of opioid prescriptions being written is on the decline. Since a peak in 2010, the United States has seen a year after year reduction in the number of prescriptions for these painkillers through 2015.
But, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday, that decline doesn’t tell the whole story. Opioid prescribing remains concerningly high—in 2015, the number of prescriptions being written was enough to keep every American medicated around the clock for three weeks—and a substantial amount of geographic variation exists within the prescription data.
The CDC report found that in 2015, six times more opioids per person were being dispensed in the highest-prescribing counties compared with the lowest-prescribing counties. And, from 2010 to 2015, 22.6 percent of counties actually bucked nationwide trends and saw rising rates of opioid prescriptions.
Overall, that suggests that the health care you receive depends, at least partly, on where you live and that inconsistencies remain in the practice of chronic pain management.
The counties with higher numbers of opioid prescriptions tend to have a few things in common. They are whiter, have higher unemployment and Medicaid enrollment rates, they have more residents who have diabetes, arthritis or a disability, and they tend to have more primary care doctors and dentists. Altogether, however, those factors accounted for a little less than one-third of the county-to-county variation.
The two-year lag on national-level data means that the CDC will have to wait and see if its guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain—which the agency released only last year—have made a dent at slowing the rate at which these pills are being dispensed.
Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.