State health director wants daily opioid death reports

Cara Christ

Cara Christ

PHOENIX – Citing state laws on epidemics, the state’s top health official wants Gov. Doug Ducey to give her more powers to deal with opioid overdoses, including the ability to identify and track individual patients.

In a memo to the governor, Cara Christ wants daily reports of suspected cases of deaths from both prescription and non-legal forms of opiates. Christ told Ducey it will “allow for real-time tracking of the severity of the epidemic.’’

But Christ also wants Ducey to order doctors to give her agency something on a daily basis it does not get now at all: reports of cases where someone has overdosed on the drug.

More to the point, Christ wants all health care providers to report “patient-specific information’’ about suspected opioid overdoses, including name, gender and date of birth if known.

“This information will allow Arizona Department of Health Services to implement patient tracking, if necessary,’’ she said in her memo to the governor.

Ducey was expected to sign the new executive order as early as Tueseday.

The request comes as health officials struggle to get a handle on not only the rapidly increasing use of the drug, both legally and otherwise, but a spike in deaths. Health officials report 790 people died of opioid overdoses last year, an average of more than two a day.

Agency spokeswoman Holly Ward said her boss believes that having more real-time data might help the health department figure out how to reverse the trend. But that still leaves the question of how having that information will make a difference.

“That remains to be seen, that remains to be answered,’’ she said. “That’s a fair question.’’

But Ward said it’s a good starting point, particularly with data lagging as much as a year behind.

“What we will be asking for will give us a much better picture that we just don’t have right now,’’ she said. And that, Ward said, should lead to some solutions that have so far eluded health professionals.

“I don’t think this is a situation where we already have the answer,’’ she said.

“We can try to make a lot of guesses,’’ Ward explained. But she said that, without more data, “they won’t be very informed guesses.’’

That all deals with trends. But Ward said the nature of the problem –and the number of deaths – also requires individual patient tracking.

“There is a solid correlation of how many times an opioid user has been admitted or taken to the hospital for an overdose before they die,’’ she said. “It’s something like three times.’’

What patient tracking would do, Ward said, is enable someone to get to that patient sooner -–before they die.

“That would help us to potentially have intervention sooner,’’ she said. “In a public health emergency response, our goal is to save lives.’’

Ward said it might not be anyone from her agency that intercedes.

“But it could be one of the many partners that would have that ability based on that data,’’ she said.’’

She said none of this would lead to public release of anyone’s name, citing federal laws protecting individual health records.

What Christ wants – and what Ducey is expected to order – is based on a section of law that gives the governor certain emergency powers in situations of bioterrorism, pandemic disease, highly infectious agents or biological toxins. That also includes any health condition due to “epidemic.’’

“In the public health realm, it’s a widespread occurrence of disease,’’ Ward said. And she said Christ has concluded that opioid abuse, as an addiction to a highly addictive pain killer, fits that defintion.

She acknowledged that health officials also refer to things like alcoholism and obesity as a disease. But Ward said there’s one thing that makes this different: the sharp spike in deaths, more than double what it was in 2012.

“Now, this is getting to an area of epidemic proportion that policy and laws can’t change alone,’’ she said. Ward said once her agency has better data Christ then can make concrete recommendations to Ducey and the legislature of what else they should do in a bid to combat abuse.

Ward also said that Christ is not alone in deciding that opioid abuse is an epidemic. She said the federal Centers for Disease Control also classify the problem of opioid deaths as “epidemic.’’