SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Health won a $3.76 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight prescription painkiller overdose deaths.
Under the terms of the grant, the department's Violence and Injury Prevention Program will receive $940,000 a year over the next four years to battle what the CDC calls a "prescription drug overdose epidemic."
"We've been seeing an increase in our prescription opioid deaths since 2010, so we're trying to gear up a lot of efforts to bring that rate down," said Anna Fondario, an injury epidemiologist at the department's Violence and Injury Prevention Program.
Fondario said Utah is ranked fifth in the nation for drug overdose deaths, most of which are caused by prescription drugs.
According to preliminary health department data, 289 people died from prescription opioids in Utah last year — about 24 people a month. That's up slightly from 2013, when 274 people in Utah died from overdosing on painkillers.
Fondario said the funds will be used to examine prescribing behavior, improve intervention efforts in high-risk communities and evaluate state policies that deal with prescription drugs.
Some of those priorities were requirements imposed by the CDC, she said.
For example, the CDC is requiring states that won grants to track prescribing behavior — including what kind of drugs are being prescribed and how much doctors are prescribing — so they can compare the data with other states, Fondario said.
The health department will also evaluate two laws passed last year, both sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City.
One law allows people to get a prescription for naloxone, a drug that can be administered via injection or nasal spray to reverse the effects of a drug overdose.
Previously, Utah doctors could only prescribe naloxone for personal use, but now anybody who is concerned about a friend or family member can get a naloxone kit.
The health department will also examine what some refer to as Utah's "good Samaritan" law, which grants immunity to those who report overdoses.
Unlike good Samaritan laws in other states, Utah's version doesn't make those 911 calls anonymous.
"We want to evaluate it to make sure it's being implemented how it's being implemented in other states, just to help us understand if we need to make some amendments to make sure that people feel comfortable and aware that if they're with someone who is overdosing, that they can call and not fear any kind of prosecution," Fondario said.
In addition, the department wants to develop a team to respond to emerging drug overdose trends based on real-time data, she said.
The CDC is committing $20 million in fiscal year 2015 to 16 states for the program.
Since 1999, overdose deaths involving prescription painkillers have quadrupled in the U.S., according to the CDC. In 2013, more than 16,000 people died after overdosing on painkillers.
Utahns wishing to dispose of prescription pain medication can find a list of drop box locations, as well as safe storage, use and disposal tips, at www.useonlyasdirected.org.
Daphne Chen is a reporter for the Deseret News and KSL.com. Contact her at email@example.com.