Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Friday, December 30, 2016
Bucks, Montco coroners: Record-breaking year for drug-related deaths
Posted December 24, 2016
Bucks and Montgomery county coroners are seeing a record-breaking number of drug-related deaths this year — so many that both offices are running over budget for autopsy-related supplies and services.
Both counties anticipate the number of drug-related deaths will nearly double this year compared to 2015, a trend largely blamed on the wide availability of cheap and powerful illegal opiates in the Philadelphia region, especially the black market version of the powerfulsynthetic prescription painkiller fentanyl. Earlier this month alone, eight overdose deaths involving suspected opiates occurred in Falls and Bristol Township over an 11-day span.
In Montgomery County, 116 accidental drug overdoses accounted for nearly half of all the 254 coroner cases the first six months of this year, the most recent statistics available, according to First Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki. In 2015, they accounted for roughly 30 percent of cases for the entire year.
Opiates were present in 90 percent of those drug-related deaths through June, Balacki said. Seventy deaths were considered heroin-related during the first six months of 2016, a number that nearly matches the total number of heroin deaths for all of 2015. Fentanyl alone was found in 30 percent of drug-related accidental deaths the first six months of this year. And the opiate antidote Narcan was found in the blood of 16 of those who overdosed in 2016.
While the antidote doesn't always work, “We would be buried if we didn’t have Narcan, that is for sure,” Balacki added.
Nearly one-quarter, or 137, of the 680 cases the Bucks County Coroner’s Office has handled through Thursday have involved accidental drug-related deaths, a record high number, according to Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell.
Campbell estimates that roughly 75 percent of those deaths involved heroin or other opiates. Another 28 cases are pending toxicology results and he anticipates at least half will be drug-related deaths.
Last year a total of 89 drug-related deaths occurred in Bucks County.
“This is a stunning increase for one year,” Campbell added. “That is a monumental leap from last year.”
Campbell anticipates the county will hit at least 150 accidental drug-related deaths before the end of the year once toxicology results are returned. But he suspects some drug-related deaths were missed.
Hospitals don’t keep blood drawn during initial emergency room admissions for longer than a week, so if a person is admitted but doesn’t die for a few weeks no blood is available for drug testing, Campbell said.
“There are a number of cases like that,” he added.
The dramatic rise in drug-related deaths translates into an increase in autopsies, which has taken a toll on the budgets of both coroner offices. They are seeing higher costs for toxicology testing, supplies and employee overtime. Both county coroner offices requested an increase in budget line items for next year worried the trend would continue.
Bucks County’s Campbell's office exhausted its budget for post-mortem expenses last month and he estimated his office will be at least $15,000 to $20,000 over budget this year.
“More volume begets more expenses,” Campbell added.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Montgomery County’s financial director for comment on the budget situation, but Balacki pointed out that increasingly sophisticated tests for fentanyl derivatives are not cheap. The county also contracts with pathologists who are paid by the case. Costs also are associated with transporting bodies to the morgue.
In his budget for next year, Balacki requested a 25 percent increase in the provider services line item, including autopsies, supplies and toxicology and related testing. But another year like 2016 could have him requesting even more money from the county commissioners next year.
“If we get hit really hard again, we’re going to need more personnel,” he said. “And it’s not slowing down, that I can tell you that.”