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Availability, Not the Economy, Drives New England Opioid Overdoses

Every New England state has seen higher rates of opioid overdose deaths than the U.S. average. (New England Public Policy Center)
Every New England state has seen higher rates of opioid overdose deaths than the U.S. average. (New England Public Policy Center)
May 31, 2019

BOSTON – A new report claims it isn't economic factors that have fueled high numbers of opioid overdoses in New England – but doctors who've been over-prescribing them.

Looking into the impact of the opioid epidemic on the labor market, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found overdose death rates were higher in every New England state in 2017 than the national average. It says high prescription rates boosted the supply of opioids and made them more accessible.

Riley Sullivan is a report co-author and policy analyst at the New England Public Policy Center at the Boston Fed, who explains the report's main findings.

"While higher rates of fatal overdoses are, on average, associated with certain indicators of economic malaise, that it was actually higher rates of prescribing that are most closely associated with higher rates of fatal overdoses," says Sullivan.

The research found some areas had both high prescription rates and signs of economic distress – but overall, the prescription rates were more directly linked to overdose deaths.

Sullivan says opioid prescriptions peaked from 2010 to 2012 – and when the epidemic received more public attention, the rates began decreasing.

He notes that fatal opioid overdoses are starting to decline in Massachusetts. Sullivan says public health responses from the Commonwealth are helping to curb those deaths.

"From 2016 into 2017, Massachusetts actually had a decline in fatal overdoses," says Sullivan. “They were very aggressive about getting NARCAN out into communities and other overdose reversal drugs that prevented some overdoses, that maybe in the past would have been fatal."

He explains that illegal opioid drug use, including fentanyl, didn't necessarily decrease in the Bay State – but overdose reversal drugs are keeping more people alive. The full report is online at 'bostonfed.org.'

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - MA