Heroin deaths drop in Utah for first time in 7 years

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in seven years, heroin overdose deaths decreased in Utah in 2017, state leaders said Monday.

According to the state’s calculations, there were 159 fatal overdoses connected to heroin in 2017, a 14.5 percent decrease from the year before, said Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Fatal overdoses stemming from prescription opioids decreased for the third consecutive year in 2017, dropping by 16 percent to 237, Cox said.

Total opioid deaths dropped by 19.8 percent in 2017 in Utah, according to data released Monday by Cox’s office. He said Utah is one of just nine states where the overall number of such deaths dropped in 2017.

The numbers indicate “that we may hopefully have turned the corner here,” Cox said. He added, “We still have a lot of work left to do.”

He believes state policies targeting opioid addiction throughout Utah have made the state a model that others in the country can look to as they address drug addiction crises in their own communities.

“People are looking at Utah, they’re desperate to find out what’s working and where it’s working,” Cox said. “We still have a long, long ways to go, but at least we feel like there’s hope now.”

Prescription opioid overdose deaths in Utah more than quintupled from 60 in 2000 to 326 in 2007, according to Utah Department of Health data. The number of such deaths have ranged between 236 and 301 in the years since.

State numbers show fatal heroin overdoses stayed under 100 each year from 2000 to 2011, but have been in the triple digits every year since. The number of those deaths rose to 140 by 2015 and to 186 in 2016.

According to Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko, the 2017 numbers reported Monday reflect only unintentional or undetermined opioid overdose deaths, and not suicides involving opioids, which could lead to differences compared to other groups’ statistical reports.

Some fatal cases involve both heroin and prescription opioids in a person’s system, and are counted toward both categories, Hudachko explained.

Standing alongside Cox on Monday, leaders from the Utah departments of Health, Commerce, Public Safety, and Human Services described what their agencies are doing to prevent, track and treat opioid addiction.

Anne Williamson, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said there is no reason for Utahns to become hopeless or fatalistic about the impact of opioid addiction in their communities. Such addiction is both preventable and treatable, she said.

“The more we understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease, and one with hope that can be treated just as we treat our physical health, the better,” she said. “Prevention works. Treatment is effective and people recover.”

Williamson said her department has made improvements in the past year by helping 438 uninsured addiction treatment patients enroll in a health coverage plan. The number of clients receiving opioid use disorder treatment through state-organized medication assisted treatment programs has also increased 31 percent from 2017 to 2018, she said.

Francine Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, said her agency has hired a specialist to offer education to doctors found to be “prescribing outside the established prescribing guidelines.” The department has also hired an additional investigator to look into case in which medical practices “harm patients and their families through reckless or negligent prescribing,” Giani said.

The ultimate goal, Giani said, is the “reduction on the amount of opioids, especially high dosage opioids, unnecessarily prescribed and dispensed in the state of Utah.”

Cox said each of the state departments responsible for responding to opioid addiction in Utah have bought into “the importance of real-time data, being able to see and understand what is happening on the ground.”

For example, by promptly identifying certain areas of the state where opioid overdose deaths are “clustering,” he said, “we’ll be able to see doctors who are prescribing recklessly pretty quickly.”

Cox believes intangible improvements, like changing the way Utahns talk about addiction with each other, are also critically important for the state’s hopes of reducing opioid-related deaths long term.

“It’s more important than ever that as a society … we start to recognize addiction and mental illness as what they are — illnesses,” he said. “When something inside of us is broken, we feel like we can’t share that, and we have to change that.”

Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, agreed with Cox’s sentiment that there is no reason to be satisfied, despite the good news about reduced fatal heroin overdoses.

“We still average (about) one opioid overdose death per day,” Miner said.

Ben Lockhart