Bitter pill to swallow: Opioid supply to RGV steadily increased over 7 years

Source: The AP’s analysis is based on detailed drug shipment data from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System, released through a lawsuit filed by the Washington Post and HD Media. (Illustration by Eddie Mirza | The Monitor)

As the country continues to grapple with the opioid epidemic, the Rio Grande Valley, specifically, has largely been spared from its worst effects. But newly released data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows that, like in other places throughout the country, shipments of opioids to the Valley steadily increased over a seven-year timespan.

Though still lower than national averages, opioid shipments to Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties steadily increased between 2006 and 2012, according to data from the Drug Enforcement Administration that was analyzed by the Associated Press.

The analysis is based off of data from the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidation Order System, which was released through a lawsuit filed by the Washington Post and HD Media.

The data shows that the amount of opioid pills shipped to hospitals, pharmacies and doctors’ offices in the area are enough to provide every resident with a few days of a typical opioid prescription.

In Hidalgo County, the number of pills per person increased by 7.98 pills in those seven years, a 121.83% increase.

In Cameron County, there was an increase of 8.98 per person, a 95.84% increase, while in Starr, there was an increase of 11.59 pills per person, a 286.88% increase.

When looking at just hydrocodone and oxycodone pills — the two most abused opioids — there was a 7.03 pill per person increase in Hidalgo County, a 135.45% increase.

In Cameron, there was a 7.82 pill increase, or 102.49%, while in Starr, there was a 10.9 pill increase, or 348.24%.

Although Starr County had the biggest growth in pills per person regarding all opioids, Cameron County actually had the largest amount of pills per person in 2012 with 18.35 pills.

Starr had 15.63 while Hidalgo County had 14.53 pills per person in 2012.

Focusing on just hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, Hidalgo came in with 12.22 pills per person, Cameron had 15.45, while Starr had 14.03 pills per person.

Put another way, that means that in 2012, distributors shipped enough opioids to Hidalgo County to provide every resident with 2.82 days of a typical opioid prescription or 1.31 days of a hydrocodone or oxycodone prescription.

In Cameron County, there was enough to provide every resident with 3.94 days of a prescription, or 1.85 days worth of a hydrocodone or oxycodone prescription in 2012.

In Starr, there was enough to provide every resident with 1.8 days of an opioid prescription, or 1.25 days worth of a hydrocodone or oxycodone prescription in 2012.

The data also included the amount of opioid pills dispensed by pharmacies in the area.

As analyzed by the AP, the largest amount of all kinds of opioids came from Walgreens at 10,090,990 pills from 2006 to 2012.

Cornerstone Pharmacy in Edinburg came in second with 3,145,905 pills during that time frame.

Lee’s Pharmacy and Medical Equipment came in third with 1,823,544 pills followed by CVS Pharmacy at 1,606,474 pills.

In Cameron County, Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy topped the list with 6,255,106 and 3,772,788 pills, respectively.

They were followed by Fry’s Prescription Pharmacy with 2,882,644 pills, Mac Pherson’s Pharmacy-Downtown with 2,634,461 and Salinas Pharmacy with 1,689,174 pills.

While data for Hidalgo and Cameron counties listed dozens of pharmacies, Starr County only had 11 pharmacies listed as “buyers.”

In Starr, the largest dispenser was Lino’s Pharmacy with 920,289 pills, followed by Oscar’s Pharmacy with 674,481 pills.

H-E-B came in third with 623,918 pills and a second location of Lino’s Pharmacy came ranked fourth in the number of pills dispensed with 552,021 pills.

Rounding out the top five was Fred’s Pharmacy with 489,170 pills.

While the data shows an overall increase in opioid distribution to the three counties, the numbers pale in comparison to other parts of the country and the national average.

While the pills shipped to those three RGV counties in 2012 were enough to provide every resident a few days worth of prescriptions, nationally, the opioids distributed were enough to provide every resident nearly 20 days worth of the drugs.

In some counties, the numbers were six times that national average, according to the AP.

Still, opioids have had an effect on the Valley.

Texas Health and Human Services found that in Hidalgo County, there were a total of 29 “accidental poisoning deaths where opioids were involved” from 2006 to 2012, according to statistics from the department.

Cameron County had 17 such deaths while Starr County had none.

During that same timespan, there were 7,175 deaths statewide.

In May 2018, the state filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis, alleging the drug manufacturer misrepresented its drugs.

Around the same time Bexar County filed their own lawsuit against 50 pharmaceutical companies are seeking $1 billion in damages. That trial is set for jury trial in October 2020.