This region’s health care providers, prosecutors and police have talked for several years about the growth of opioid addiction, misuse, overprescription and related crime.
But recent national reports on opioid prescription rates paint a misleading picture of what goes on in the city of Norton, according to the city manager.
A July 16 Washington Post article presented analysis of data from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s opioid database.
It stated that two Virginia cities received the most opioid pain pills per capita in the United States between 2006 and 2012 — Norton, at 306 pills per resident, and Martinsville, at 242 pills per resident.
The unstated implication is that individual Norton residents buy more opioids than folks in any other American city.
And that’s the problem with how the data is presented, says City Manager Fred Ramey.
“Our entire region and much of the country has been greatly impacted by the opioid epidemic and we are clearly shocked by the extent of the alleged wrongdoing by the pharmaceutical companies,” Ramey wrote by email in response to a request for comments.
However, he continued: “It has been very disappointing that there has not been more upfront context to the per capita statistics that have been noted in the national articles. Since all demand is not local, using local population as the denominator in order to get ‘per capita’ values can be misleading.”
The Post’s coverage does not clearly explain the context in which a high volume of opioid sales in Norton must be viewed, according to Ramey.
Norton, with nearly 4,000 residents, is located at the intersection of two four-lane highways in the middle of Wise County. The city, Ramey noted, “is a regional commercial hub and home to two hospitals, a VA clinic, and regional cancer facility along with a number of doctors that serve the medical needs of a multi-county area that includes a portion of Eastern Kentucky.”
A Washington Post reporter visited Norton and wrote a follow-up story published July 18. That article acknowledged that the city has two hospitals and that local officials note that “patients come from many counties around, or even from Kentucky or Tennessee.”
Ramey studied the DEA statistics and found that the top 10 Wise County and Norton pharmacies by opioid sales volume were:
• Family Drug, Big Stone Gap: 5,865,280 pills.
• Walmart, Norton: 3,534,780 pills.
• Ernie's Drug, St. Paul: 3,208,410 pills.
• Cavalier Pharmacy, Wise: 3,208,410 pills.
• Family Care Drug Center, Coeburn: 2,961,930 pills.
• Mutual Drug, Big Stone Gap: 2,389,350 pills.
• CVS pharmacy, Norton: 1,354,500 pills.
• Lonesome Pine Economy Drug, Norton: 887,530 pills.
• Norton Community Hospital: 774,490 pills.
• Medical Arts Pharmacy, Norton: 682,950 pills.
Data maps of the U.S. accompanying the article show that, indeed, there is an alarmingly high concentration of opioid sales in the central Appalachian counties of Southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, northeast Tennessee and southern West Virginia. But that comes as no surprise to health professional, law enforcement, the court system and local governments.
Due to such concerns, Ramey noted, on Sept. 29, 2018, city council voted to join communities across the region and Virginia in a lawsuit to recover damages incurred as a result of the opioid epidemic. “Our attorneys are representing us vigorously and we intend to pursue all available remedies to compensate for the harm that this epidemic has caused our citizens and community.”