MARTINSVILE — Martinsville officials are placing at least part of the blame on drug makers for another startling statistic in the region’s tragic problem with opioid abuse.
The city of Martinsville has the nation’s second-highest per-capita rate for the most opioid pain pills prescribed between 2006 and 2012, based on information in a database maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that was made public this week.
That report says 242 pills per person were distributed in Martinsville, exceeded in rate only by another Virginia city — Norton, with 306 pills per person.
“It would be good to get some compensation from the drug companies for the damage the opioid industry has done to places like Martinsville,” Bonnie Favero, prevention director for Piedmont Community Services, wrote in an email.
Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady said, “I believe it all started with drugs being labeled as non-addictive and being prescribed.”
In those six years drug companies put about 76 billion pills into communities across the country while about 100,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose, a news release from the Virginia Office of the Attorney General said.
The data is consistent with information obtained as part of Attorney General Mark Herring’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, which showed Purdue alone pushed nearly 150 million opioid pills and patches into Virginia between 2008 to 2017.
Prescription opioids include such common painkillers as hydrocodone, oxycodone, Percocet, Vicodin, morphine, codeine, fentanyl (stronger than the highly addictive drug heroin) and the maintenance medication methadone.
A report by the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner released earlier this year showed that 34 people in Henry County and Martinsville died from illicit and prescription opioid overdoses between 2016 and 2018 (24 for Henry County and 10 for Martinsville).
“The brief time that a doctor set up a ‘pain management’ clinic here added tremendously to the severity of our data,” Favero said. “ I’m glad to see the DEA is still working on resolving this issue, and I hope that much of the compensation will filter down to prevention, so we can work harder to stop this problem before it starts much like the Tobacco Settlement award has helped provide tobacco prevention programs.
“Also, [I] would really like to see the drug companies or government assist with starting an inpatient treatment facility and help fund prevention services.”
In May, Joel Smithers, who established a medical practice in Martinsville from which he developed an illegal prescription drug trade, was found guilty in U.S. District Court in Abingdon of 861 drug-related charges, including that his prescriptions caused the death of a woman in West Virginia.
His sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 16. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life in federal prison. He also could face fines of more than $200 million.
Federal prosecutors showed the jury Smithers in 2015 opened an osteopathic medicine office, The Center for Integrative Health at Smithers Community Healthcare on Commonwealth Boulevard. He was arrested in 2017.
During his trial in May, evidence was presented Smithers prescribed controlled substances to every patient in his practice, resulting in more than 500,000 Schedule II controlled substances being distributed.
They included oxymorphone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and fentanyl, a release from the Department of Justice said.
A majority of those receiving prescriptions from Smithers traveled hundreds of miles , one-way, to receive drugs, court documents said.
Favero indicated a number of other factors that may have contributed to Martinsville’s high per capita rate.
“We had a large unemployed population during that time who had previously been employed in very labor-intensive jobs, which accounts for the large percent of people on disability in this community,” she said. “When people are on disability, they are often [especially before so much was known about the harmful effects of opioids]prescribed opioids for their pain.
“As the article says, the pharmaceutical companies targeted areas like ours for their sales. Physicians had been trained to relieve people of their pain the best they could and they were told by the drug companies that these medications were not addictive. So many of them probably prescribed to their patients out of a desire to help them”
Favero said Drug Free Martinsville Henry County has been working to make a difference in these statistics.
“Some improvements that have been made have been handed down by the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] to physicians giving them guidelines about prescribing. The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program helps keep track of who is accessing these drugs so they are not prescribed by more than one doctor. Other improvements have been made by law enforcement who work diligently on our community to combat drug problems,” she said.
“Piedmont [Community Services] instituted Same Day Access and the numbers of people accessing services has increased, which means more people are getting help with their addiction. The Hope Center has provided an opportunity for those in recovery to have an intensive rehabilitation program. REVIVE trainings have been provided by Ann Gibson to large numbers of people in the community to help them understand addiction and to teach them how to use the overdose prevention drug, Naloxone.
“We need a detox inpatient treatment facility in Martinsville desperately. The hospital would be a perfect place for that.”
Cassady cited partnerships of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to help combat drug abuse. He also cited community awareness efforts, participation in prescription drug take-back days and having several permanent drop sites, including MPD and the Henry County Jail.
Cassady also mentioned the Martinsville opioid study that is underway. Last year, it was announced that Virginia Tech will receive $99,705 federal funding to conduct a 2-year research project to bring together community partners and stakeholders in Martinsville to help address the opioid crisis. Cassady is chair of that Martinsville Opioid Task Force.
Cassady also said he would be attending a meeting of rural police chiefs in Knoxville, Tennwssee, to focus on opioids.
“We need to continue our community awareness,” he said. “We need to have facilities and get as many treatment options available to our citizens.”
Martinsville Vice Mayor Chad Martin was clear about how he attributed this data: “Dr. Smithers — we can attribute this major spike in pills being passed out and the high levels of overdose that we have had to deal with.”
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.