Report Finds That Prescribing Practices Are Major Driver Of Opioid Epidemic

May 28, 2019

A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston finds that prescribing practices are a stronger driver of the opioid crisis in New England than economic conditions. The goal of the study was to better understand the underlying cause of the epidemic, which has claimed 10,000 lives across the region in recent years.

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York.
Credit Patrick Sison / AP Photo

The study by the public policy branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston examined the rate of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths county by county in New England.

“When you consider those economic indicators jointly with prescribing rates, it becomes clear that prescribing rates are really what might be driving this pattern," says Riley Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with the bank.

"We found that the counties that, several years ago had the highest rates of prescription opioids are now the ones that had the highest rates of fatal overdoses," Sullivan says.

Sullivan says there is a link between economic conditions and the opioid crisis, but the link with prescribing practices is stronger. The most recent data the report examined for overdose deaths was from 2016. That's the same year that a Maine law went into effect that limits opioid prescriptions.

Maine's Director of Opioid Response, Gordon Smith, says the state has seen progress since then.

"Eighteen months after that, we find that for the first time in seven or eight years, there's a decline in overdose deaths, it’s kind of further evidence of what they're suggesting in the report," says Smith.

Maine's overdose death rate dropped 15 percent last year. The Federal Reserve report also found that states that have approached the opioid crisis as a public health issue, such as Vermont, had the lowest rate of overdose deaths in New England.

Originally published May 24, 2019 at 2:48 p.m. ET.