Originally Published: December 31, 2015 6:07 a.m.
PRESCOTT - Prescription painkiller abuse is a growing, national health epidemic, yet for many communities in this state and elsewhere it has not proved a top prevention priority.
Not so in Yavapai County.
For almost four years, MATFORCE, a countywide substance abuse coalition headquartered in Prescott Valley, has highlighted prescription opioid abuse as a prevention priority, working closely with the Yavapai County Community Health Services department, the general medical and pharmaceutical community, law enforcement and school districts to combat such addictions.
The coalition pushed for legislation to make it easier for doctors to track prescription painkiller use. They have collected more than 17,000 pounds of prescription medications through their "Dump the Drugs" awareness projects. Local Police Departments now have prescription drug drop boxes in their lobbies.
Statistic indicate their diligence has paid off.
Since 2012 when MATFORCE was selected to participate in a state prevention project to tackle this rising substance abuse trend, Yavapai County has seen reductions in deaths from a rate of between 10 and 15 per 100,000 residents to between 2 and 5 per 100,000 residents. Between 2012 and 2014, the Arizona youth survey suggests a 36 percent reduction in prescription painkillers in school-aged children, with officials citing enhanced prevention education efforts.
County health and prevention officials say emergency room and hospitalization visits have also seen declines in those years, but are quick to say educational vigilance must remain a priority because even one overdose is one too many.
"We've accomplished a lot, but the problem doesn't just go away," said MATFORCE Executive Director Merilee Fowler.
Two national organizations this year - The National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors Inc. and the National Prevention Network - recognized MATFORCE for its multi-faceted approach to reducing prescription drug abuse in Yavapai County. It was just one of four programs so honored in the nation.
"It's something we have to continue to work on. We can't take our eye off the prize," Fowler said. "Eighty percent of those who use heroin say they started with prescription drugs."
That is why MATFORCE and Yavapai County Community Health Services leaders are hailing news that the Health Services department is the recipient of a half-million, five-year grant, or about $100,000 each year, from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tackle this form of drug abuse.
"It's awesome," Fowler said of the new grant.
Yavapai County Community Health Services Assistant Public Health Director Leslie Horton said this money will further its alliance with MATFORCE, allowing the two organizations to expand on their already successful strategies so to keep the problem of prescription painkiller overdoses and addiction from gaining more traction in coming years.
In the past, Horton said the county's financial resources have been less focused on substance abuse than on public health concerns such as obesity and tobacco use. MATFORCE has been the main advocate, with the county's health staff collaborating with them on particular projects.
Some of the funding will support continued prescription drug monitoring programs and advocating for fewer prescriptions of opioid painkillers; prevention advocacy on the state and community level as well as "rapid response projects" to address any new or emerging problems related to prescription drug overdoses, Horton said. She noted the state will be sending "toolkits" intended to assist in this effort.
"Prescription drug overdose is a public health crisis in Arizona, yet it is a preventable one," said Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services in a news release about the grant. "Now we have additional resources to combat the epidemic in our state."
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