During six years at the height of the opioid epidemic, six manufacturers shipped 1.9 billion pain pills into Kentucky.
Of those, 14.2 million came to Letcher County — enough for every man, woman and child to take 83 highly potent pain pills per year.
The Washington Post and The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia spent a year fighting for access to automated data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and have now made that data available to the public and other news organizations. The data includes only two commonly abused opioid drugs — oxycodone and hydrocodone — and covers the years 2006-2012.
Oxycodone is often sold under the brand names Percodan, Endodan, Roxiprin, Percocet, Endocet, Roxicet and OxyContin. Hydrocodone, a less powerful painkiller, is sold under the names Anexsia, Dicodid, Hycodan, Hycomine, Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Tussionex and Vicodin.
Despite the large numbers of pills sold here, Letcher County was not flooded to the extent of some other counties in the area. Perry County, where residents once called the county park “Pillville,” received 35,253,205 pain pills, enough for 175 pills per person per year, the largest number per person of any county in the area.
Other counties in the region and the numbers of pills they received were:
• Breathitt – 10,782,950, or 106 per person per year
• Harlan – 16,582,850, or 79 per person per year
• Knott – 4,766,750, or 40 per person per year
• Lee – 7,251,160, or 132 per per- son per year
• Leslie – 8,777,108, or 109 per person per year
• Owsley – 3,952,220, or 119 per person per year
• Pike – 66,785,120, or 146 per person per year
• Wolfe – 4,698,050, or 92 per person per year
• Wise County, Va. – 34,888,121, or 120 per person per year
• Norton, Va. – 8,263,510, or 305 per person per year (Norton is surrounded by Wise County, but is counted separately.)
While the national focus is on opioids, the data received from the FDA is six years old and may miss a current trend. Law enforcement and medical personnel say opioids have become harder to get here, and the biggest problem here now is methamphetamines, often mixed with the prescription drug gabapentin, often sold under the brand name Neurontin.
“ What we’re finding when we get people with meth is they’ve also got Neurontin,” Letcher County Sheriff Mickey Stines said.
Neurontin is an anticonvulsant used medically to treat epilepsy and neuropathic pain. Stines said people his office arrests have told them they use the Neurtontin to give themselves, or their customers, a stronger high than meth alone, which had become too expensive for many users to buy.
“It was $100 a gram, now the market’s been flooded and it’s down to $40 a gram,” Stines said. Dealers crush the Neurontin and add it to the meth, he said, to cut the cost further, and make the expensive meth last longer and make them more money.
While no recent numbers were available, the database shows the number of pills sent to eastern Kentucky pharmacies was even higher than those sent to some pharmacies in Louisville, the largest city in the state.
According to the database, two of the top five pharmacies in Kentucky for pain pills were in Paintsville, and a third was in nearby Prestonsburg.
Valu- Med Pharmacy Inc. of Paintsville received 10,449,480 pills during the six-year period, the most of any pharmacy in the state. PCA Corrections LLC, which operates as PCA Pharmacy in Louisville, received 9,611,380. Little and Waddell Inc., of Prestonsburg, received 9,274,090, and DBA Medicine Cabinet Pharmacy in Paintsville received 9,183,940. The fifth highest number went to Walgreens in Louisville, which received 8,725,790 pills.
Overall, Jefferson County received about 308 million pills, or 60 per person per year, compared to 24.9 million in Johnson County, or 152 per person per year. Floyd County, where Prestonsburg is the county seat, received 47,360,434, or 168 pills per person per year.