inside sources print logo
Get up to date New Hampshire news in your inbox

Patients With Mental Health Disorders Receive More Opioids, Study Suggests

People with anxiety and depression are disproportionately prescribed painkillers. That’s what new research from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center suggests, adding a complex layer to the opioid epidemic ravaging the United States and encouraging calls from New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to not move forward with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The findings, which appear in the July issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, show that nearly 19 percent of the 38.6 million American adults with mental health disorders use prescription opioids compared to only 5 percent of those without a disorder. Adults with depression and anxiety receive 51 percent of the 115 million opioid prescriptions distributed each year in the U.S., the study found.

“Because of the vulnerable nature of patients with mental illness, such as their susceptibility for opioid dependency and abuse, this finding warrants urgent attention to determine if the risks associated with such prescribing are balanced with therapeutic benefits,” said Brian Sites, an anesthesiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and one of the co-authors of the study.

Image Credit: Dartmouth-Hitchcock

Opioid prescribing in the U.S. quadrupled between 1999 and 2015, and during that time more than 183,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sites also notes that because pain is subjective, “the presence of mental illness may influence the complex dynamic between patient, provider, and health system that results in the decision to write an opioid prescription.”

The study does not give a specific reason why people with mental disorders are more frequently prescribed opiates. The study encourages more research on this population to understand opiate addiction.

Those patients may have some form of physical pain, but their mental condition may cause them to feel that pain more acutely or be less able to cope with it, leading to increased requests for something to dull the pain. As a result, doctors trying to be empathetic to their patients’ complaints may tend to overprescribe opioid painkillers, Stiles said.

Research also shows that patients are more likely to take opioids when there aren’t specialists nearby. A study published earlier this year found that the number of seniors in rural America who take at least three prescribed psychotropic drugs ― including opioids and antidepressants ― tripled over a nine-year period. The study found that many of these prescriptions were given without a proper diagnosis.

Being able to identify a subset of the population that could be more likely to use opioids could help providers and policymakers address opioid use. It “suggests that there may be additional patient- and provider-related factors specific to those with mental illness that increase the likelihood of receiving prescription opioids,” the authors wrote.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., was present for a press conference about the study on Monday. She said repealing Obamacare could be disastrous for New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic.

“This is critically important in New Hampshire, as we have gone from second in the nation in deaths from the opioid crisis and heroin to first for fentanyl,” she said. “That’s not what we want to be known as first in the nation for.”

The U.S. Congress is currently in a heated healthcare battle. The Senate is working on legislation to repeal the healthcare law, but a vote on the bill has been delayed due to opposition from Republicans. New Hampshire Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan have both stated their opposition to the healthcare overhaul and have sent many press releases condemning “Trumpcare.”

“This new study is yet another reminder that, to combat the devastating opioid crisis, we must make mental health treatment affordable and accessible,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Hassan said she opposes proposed cuts to Medicaid that would affect coverage of mental health and substance abuse services.

“As we work to combat the horrific substance misuse crisis that is devastating our communities and taking a major toll on our economy in New Hampshire, this study highlights how dangerous Trumpcare, which includes massive cuts to Medicaid, would be for our state,” Hassan said in a statement. “We need a comprehensive, holistic approach to combating this epidemic that addresses the underlying causes of addiction, including mental health issues.”

To address the overprescription problem within the mental health community, Sites has suggested physicians need more access to alternative medicine besides opioids, including acupuncture, massage therapy, physical therapy, and non-opioid pharmaceuticals.

Follow Kyle on Twitter.

Sign up for NH Journal’s must-read morning political newsletter.

 

Two Major Issues Democrats Have With Gov. Sununu’s Budget

After Gov. Chris Sununu released his $12.1 billion biennium budget on Thursday, the overall sentiment among Democrats and Republicans was “the devil is in the details.”

Those details will be hammered out in the next few months as the House and Senate make their recommendations to Sununu’s 2018-2019 budget. Overall it appears both parties believe it’s a solid budget with room for improvement. Republicans praised it for being “a realistic, conservative budget which is transparent, forward thinking and strengthens education, supports our cities and towns and focuses on solving real problems that have plagued taxpayers for years,” according to Senate leadership.

Democrats were glad that Sununu kept some of his campaign promises, but were also critical that he didn’t provide too many details on proposals they deemed important, including Medicaid expansion and full-day kindergarten.

“I am very concerned about the $500 million cut from state agency budget requests and what that could mean to the citizens of New Hampshire,” House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff said in a statement. “The governor’s budget address made no mention of the successful NH Health Protection Program, leaving serious unanswered questions for the 50,000 Granite Staters who rely on the program for their health care coverage.”

In his budget proposal, Sununu includes more than $50 million in spending to address an existing shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) fiscal 2017 budget.

In January, DHHS projected a $65.9 million dollar budget shortfall. Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers pushed back against the accusation his department overspent, claiming instead Medicaid costs did not decline as the legislature expected during the last budget debate. That put Sununu in the awkward position of writing a budget with an unexpected hole in it, while also figuring out how to handle Medicaid for the state.

As for the deficit, Sununu is requiring the commissioner to make quarterly reports to him and members of the legislature leadership “about where we actually stand on our true costs, so we can become a more nimble government that’s responsive, not just reactive.”

“As governor, I won’t make people wait until after an election to discover we may have a shortfall,” he said in remarks during a Thursday joint legislative session. “We have to be transparent. We have to be honest with the people and honest with ourselves.”

Democrats’ claim he didn’t mention Medicaid expansion is true. He only mentioned the program when talking about the DHHS deficit, since that’s where the department says its money went.

“And where we have failed in the past, I am pushing for true accounting of our Medicaid program so we can reconcile estimated Medicaid payments to actual costs,” Sununu said. “And as we go forward, be sure that we won’t wait two years to check in on them again.”

He doesn’t say if he plans to expand, repeal, or replace NH Health Protection Program. The Medicaid program in New Hampshire received bipartisan support in the legislature last year when lawmakers extended the program until Dec. 31, 2018.

That legislation gives Sununu wiggle room as he attempts to balance politics and health coverage for the state. As Washington debates repealing the Affordable Care Act, several states including New Hampshire are waiting to see how Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration handles the issue.

Sununu was reluctant to say anything about Medicaid on the campaign trail, commenting he was worried about financing the program in the long-term, but didn’t mention repeal. Not wanting to permanently fund the program, he told voters it was better to let the federal government make the first move.

Before the budget speech, Democrats waited to see if Sununu would fulfill his campaign promise of funding full-day kindergarten. His proposal includes $9 million a year for full-day kindergarten, but after the speech Democrats sought clarity on determining which communities get funding.

Sununu said funds, which will be awarded in addition to education adequacy grants, would target the communities that need it most based on a community’s property wealth, the number of students on subsidized lunch programs, and communities with a high number of English as a second language students.

“So I am proud today to be the first governor to deliver a real full-day kindergarten program for communities across the state,” he added.

There’s a big distinction to be made with the state “mandating” full-day kindergarten and simply funding full-day kindergarten. Several Democrats sought to require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, but Sununu’s budget doesn’t make that a requirement. He’s leaving it up to the individual cities and towns, but they’ll receive more funds if they opt-in.

In towns that vote to implement full-day kindergarten, school districts presently only receive 50 percent of the state’s per-pupil grant for kindergarten students. Under Sununu’s plan, the neediest communities can apply for additional grants to make the program possible.

Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, who sits on the House Education Committee, said she wasn’t thrilled about Sununu’s full-day kindergarten funding proposal. Sullivan said it should be a local community’s decision, and could eventually lead to mandated full-day kindergarten.

House Speaker Shawn Jasper told reporters Sununu’s full-day kindergarten proposal probably won’t be included in the House version of the budget.

“I think that is going to be a stretch,” he said. “I think if you looked around the hall, you probably didn’t see a lot of enthusiasm on the part of Republicans on that issue. We’ll have different priorities in some areas than the governor has, certainly. I don’t think there’s ever been a budget that’s gone into the House and come out looking the same way, but he’s given us a great starting point.”

The two-year budget must be passed by June 30 to go into effect on July 1 of the next fiscal year. The House Finance Committee will look at Sununu’s budget before making a recommendation to the full House. After the House passes its version of a budget, it goes to the Senate Finance Committee, which will recommend its own proposals to the full Senate, before going to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto in spring.

Follow Kyle on Twitter.