Is Kansas turning the corner in fight against opioid epidemic?

Posted: Updated:

"Thank God things are getting better in the sense that people realize that's not the way to go," said George Saghbene, a Wichita area pharmacist.

Some Kansas pharmacists say the opioid crisis is turning a corner here, in the wake of a half a billion dollar judgment against Johnson & Johnson for pushing opioids in Oklahoma.

Saghbene has spent more than three decades filling prescriptions at Barney's Pharmacy on Wichita's Westside. 

"Trying to take care of the patient, that's the bottom line," Saghbene said.  "And keep them healthy."

He says one of the biggest changes he's seen has come in doctors' attitudes toward prescribing pain medications like opioids over the last decade.

"The thinking about pain management has fully turned 360 degrees, upside down on its head," he said.

Ten years ago a national database from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) shows his pharmacy was the busiest in Sedgwick County filling opioid prescriptions.  The recently released database covers the years 2006 to 2012.

Remember, a pharmacist's job is to fill prescriptions doctors have written.  Pharmacies listed in the database as dispensing the most opioids were mostly near a hospital or other medical center.

"We used to have two pain management (centers) down the street," Saghbene said.  

One has since moved to the other side of town, the other has closed.

During the years of the database, he says, patients often came in with big prescriptions for opioids.

"The thought was 'treat the pain as aggressively as you can, because if you do it aggressively the patient has less chance of being addicted,'" he explained.  But says now, "The thinking has changed considerably.  And you see it in the way people come into the pharmacy with a smaller script, with much more emphasis on doing alternative (treatment) beside the pain treatment."

Saghbene says he always monitored patients on narcotic prescriptions like opioids.

"Make sure they get them on time, make sure we call (the doctor) if there is any irregularity to get feedback to the doctor," he said.

But he adds that the state has made it easier to catch drug seekers with the new drug tracking program, K-TRACS.

"So you can check every single person, and we do for every patient that comes in," Saghbene explained.  "Trust but verify.  We always check to make sure they're not going anywhere else (for drugs)."

He points to the pick up in the illegal opioid trade for the current problems with the drug, especially those containing fentanyl which is behind many of the opioid related deaths.

"Everybody (is) aware there is a problem," he said.  "Let's deal with it.  The bottom line is you want a healthy, happy patient and a live patient."


Figuring out just  how pervasive the abuse of opioids is, is just one piece in the puzzle of solving the opioid epidemic in Kansas.  

After three years of fighting the opioid crisis in Kansas, there are signs the state is making progress.

"Family lives are wrecked.  With an opioid epidemic, in any kind of epidemic, we just see an increase in that," said Shawna Allen, Senior Director of Outpatient and Addiction Services at the Mental Health Association in Wichita.

Allen works with dozens of Kansans addicted to opioids every day.  She says getting treatment, no matter where one starts, is vital.  But while the treatments for an addiction to the pain medication aren't deadly, they're still difficult. 

"They are very, very painful," Allen said.  "Anyone who's seeking treatment - they can be very, very scared.  The symptoms (of withdrawal) are awful."

While the crisis dates back to the beginning of the 21st century, the state first recognized it had an opioid crisis about three years ago.

"From 2000 to 2017...our overdose rates increased by 121%," Allen said.  According to that DEA database pharmacies in Kansas filled prescriptions for more than 875,000,000 opioid pills in just a seven year span.

That's when folks like Allen began to look for ways to prevent the addictions.  The state started that opioid prescription tracking database, K-TRACS, doctors and pharmacies across the state can check before writing a new prescription.

"We run K-TRACS (on) every single (patient)," Allen said about the patients she works with.  "It's just because we have no idea."

But, she adds, even that's not fool-proof.  Drug seekers have already found short-term workarounds.  And, it doesn't prevent overdoses caused by mixing drugs.

"The highest overdose rate is opioid usage and benzodiazepines mixed together," she explained.

Yet efforts to educate the public about the dangers of opioid addictions seem to be working, based on the number of overdoses in Kansas.

"We would really hope that because we've stayed stagnant for three years that we're on the mend," Allen said.

Those fighting the war on opioid addiction are still working to find new ways to cut the use of opioids.  Part of that is getting everyone from law enforcement to local schools and churches on the same page when it comes to recognizing an addiction problem and getting the addict help. To do that, they're holding their third annual Kansas Opioid Conference in Topeka this  November.  It's open to the public.