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I-Team Exclusive: The real numbers behind Nevada's opioid deaths

LAS VEGAS - You've probably heard political figures make the claim that at least one Nevadan dies every day from an opioid overdose. That figure of more than 360 opioid deaths per year in our state has been repeated over and over, but is it true?

The answer -- not really.

The I-Team obtained the records on which the claim is based. 

In Nevada, statistics show that 99.98 percent of all opioid prescriptions do not result in overdoses, but the crackdown on pain medicine has continued to intensify anyway. Like most pain management physicians, Dr. Dan Laird has been overwhelmed by the rush of chronic pain patients who've essentially been abandoned by their doctors.

"Thousands of patients, their doctors have said, 'I'm sorry, I can't prescribe opiates anymore. You're going to have to find somebody else,' and there just isn't anybody," said Dr. Dan Laird, pain management physician.

When the CDC issued vague and unsubstantiated guidelines for opioids two years ago, it set off a nationwide panic among doctors, pharmacists, and regulators who simply said no. The result has been chaos.

A recent study shows opioid prescriptions dropped 29 percent from 2011-2017, but during that time opioid deaths rose 8 percent. Heroin and fentanyl deaths exploded. (Heroin deaths increased 252 percent. Fentanyl deaths increased 628 percent.)

Cutting back on legal pain meds not only failed to stop overdoses, it had the opposite effect. So, how can that be?

The coroner's office keeps track of what it lists as all opioid related deaths.

READ: 2017 Opioid Related Deaths in Clark County 

READ: 2018 Opioid Related Deaths in Clark County

"This information your team has been able to obtain is a game changer because it does confirm every suspicion I have had, and other doctors have had about the dishonesty of the publicity that surrounds this purported crisis," Dr. Laird said.

The first fatality of 2017 lists heroin, hydromorphone and methadone, along with pneumonia. The second case lists methamphetamine and opiate intoxication. The third lists pneumonia, asthma tobacco, marijuana, and congestive heart failure along with methamphetamine and cocaine. All the way down the page, it's the same picture over and over, multiple drugs, most of them illegal, often combined with alcohol, and the decedents also had serious underlying health issues. To label these as opioid deaths is a stretch.

It appears that if the toxicology showed an opioid in their system at the time of death, it's counted as an opioid death, which is quite misleading. The records from 2018 -- more of the same -- heroin, heroin plus cardiovascular disease, inhalation injuries due to smoking methamphetamine or how about this one, multiple drugs along with cirrhosis, HIV and leukemia. Examples of pretty much every licit and illicit drug one could name.

Chronic pain patients like Rick Martin of Henderson are in pain management programs. They are tested, they follow the rules, but because of addicts taking deadly amounts of heroin or other drugs, the patients who follow the rules have been cast aside as collateral damage. Nevada is not yet as strict as many other states, but the political rhetoric is amping up in this election year, and the oft-cited figure of one Nevadan per day dying of opioids continues to resonate.

"Seventeen people a day die of heart disease. Fourteen people a day die of cancer. Four people per day die in Nevada of lung cancer. So, it's important to keep these things in perspective. One person a day dies of an opioid but that includes everyone on the list, everyone who had an opioid in their system at the time of their death.

About one in every 40 of the deaths listed in the records involve a single, prescription opiate and there is no indication whether the decedent obtained the drugs through a legal prescription or other means. 
 


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