[KTHS] The number of deaths caused by accidental drug overdoses in the U.S. hit an all-time high in 2014, according to recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last year alone, a total of 47,055 people died from drug overdoses– almost twice the number of people killed in car crashes. Deaths from prescription drug and heroin overdoses remained the leading cause of accidental death in 2014, increasing 14 percent from 2013.
“These are brand new statistics,” said Cary Quashen, founder of the Santa Clarita drug and alcohol rehab center Action Family Counseling. “Statistics usually are up to five years old, but it’s such an epidemic and it’s so deadly right now that statistics are coming out right now.”
The CDC reported an 80 percent jump in overdose deaths from synthetic opioids– the largest increase among the latest data — and a 26 percent increase in deaths from heroin.
“Heroin overdoses only account for a very small amount of (those) 50,000 deaths,” Quashen said. “The rest of it are pills, and who dies from pills? Your neighbors, your sons, your daughters, your husbands, your wives, your parents, your grandparents. That’s the people we’re losing right now to opioids.”
Many of these people have no history of substance abuse and are what’s called “accidental addicts,” meaning they became addicted to opiates like heroin and pills after they were legitimately prescribed painkillers for an injury or surgery.
“What happens with these pills is, they’re really good at taking pain away. The problem is they’re really good at taking pain away for a short period of time,” Quashen said. “After a short period of time, we get physically dependent on these pills.”
He continued, “We think, ‘Well maybe I can stop taking them now, I’m feeling better.’ As soon as we stop taking them, our bodies start hurting… So what does our head do? It tricks us to believe we’re still in pain, so we need to take more. Before you know it, we’ve got a dependency.”
Because the prescribed amount is typically not going to be enough anymore, people will continue to increase their dosage from this point on, usually resorting to “pill shopping” from dealers after their doctors stop approving their refills, or even turning to the less expensive form of the same opiate high: heroin.
“I’m treating more accidental addicts than I’ve ever treated in my life,” Quashen said.
If fighting to overcome the emotional and physical addiction to opiates wasn’t hard enough, it has also become increasingly more difficult to seek treatment before it’s too late, according to Quashen.
“I get calls every day from people that want to get treatment that have no money, they have no insurance,” he said. “If they have insurance, I’m fighting with the insurance to get any (treatment) days at all because they don’t want to treat them.”
For an addict to even start outpatient therapy– not residential treatment –Quashen said he typically has to contact the insurance company to obtain permission from someone who has never even met the addict.
If the addict “fails” outpatient therapy, Quashen said he then usually contacts the insurance company again in order to get approval for just one or two weeks of residential treatment.
“People need 30, 60, 90 days or longer for treatment, so the access for treatment today is almost impossible,” he said.
Further, county treatment programs often have lengthy waiting lists that require an addict to call every morning for as long as three or four months to see if a spot has opened up, and if they forget, they lose their place on the list, according to Quashen.
“There’s more and more addicts out there, it’s harder and harder to get treatment, the drugs are more addictive than ever, so it’s a perfect storm,” he said. “All signs are showing it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
In order for any major changes to take place in this growing epidemic, Quashen believes it will likely take the involvement of government leaders to monitor insurance companies, increase the accessibility of treatment and provide more county funding.
But even with the obstacles addicts are currently facing in getting treatment, Quashen has a message for anyone who needs help but doesn’t know how to get it:
“Don’t ever give up hope,” he said. “There’s always a way to get treatment if you fight hard enough. You can always call our number and we will help you through it.”