Drug manufacturers sold more than 12 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to pharmacies in Vermont’s Washington County between 2006 and 2012, a Washington Post study shows.
That number includes 2.38 million pills in Waterbury and Waitsfield.
Waitsfield pharmacist Jamie Van Vught said she has seen the peak and the decline of prescribed opioids since she started her job seven years ago. The number has gone down in recent years, after more attention was given to the opioid crisis and after new laws limited the number of pills doctors could prescribe.
“It’s slowly going in the right direction,” Van Vught said. “The numbers aren’t quite where they should be yet, but they are definitely going down.”
The Post’s research
The Washington Post acquired a mammoth database from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency that tracks every pain pill sold in the United States and published its findings on July 16, then updated the data last week.
The paper went through 380 million transactions detailed in the DEA’s database between 2006 and 2012. The data released by the Post includes only oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, which it says account for three-quarters of the total opioid pill shipments to pharmacies.
“These records provide an unprecedented look at the surge of legal pain pills that fueled the prescription opioid epidemic, which resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths during the seven-year time frame ending in 2012,” The Post wrote.
The Post made its findings available for every county in the nation “to help the public understand the impact of years of prescription pill shipments on their communities.”
Millions of pills in small towns
In both Washington and Lamoille counties, Kinney Drugs stores sat atop the list.
In sheer numbers, the majority of pain pills dispensed in Washington County between 2006 and 2012 were at pharmacies in Barre/Berlin.
The Berlin-Barre Kinney Drugs dispensed 2,752,830 pills in the six-year period The Post’s database covers.
Barre’s independent Medicine Shoppe bought 1,492,690 pills. Harry’s Pharmacy, which went out of business in 2013, bought 1,267,510 pills.
In Waterbury, roughly 1.77 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were sold to three Waterbury pharmacies between 2006 and 2012.
Drug manufacturers sold Vincent’s Drug and Variety and the Waterbury Pharmacy — along with Kinney Drugs, which bought the other two businesses — 1.5 million pills. Add in Shaw’s Supermarket, which houses the Osco pharmacy, and the total number of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills that made their way into Waterbury is 1.77 million during the time frame unearthed by the Post.
John Vincent, who, along with wife Val, used to own Vincent’s Drug and Variety, was out of town this week, and Val didn’t want to comment for this report.
Kinney Drugs, which has 22 stores in Vermont, is owned by KPH Healthcare Services Inc., based in Syracuse. Attempts to reach someone in media relations at KPH were unsuccessful as of press time, but the Kinney division has an entire section of its website set aside titled “Opioid Crisis: Prevention Through Education.”
According to the site, “At Kinney Drugs, it is a top priority to take an active role in combatting the opioid epidemic. We do many things that are not necessarily visible to our patients and customers that prevent opioids from getting into the wrong hands while maintaining access to needed opioids for patients with legitimate prescriptions.”
Take them back
In Waitsfield, 611,970 pills were sold to the pharmacy in those six years — Kinney Drugs bought The Drug Store in 2012. Van Vught started working at the store the year Kinney took over.
She said Kinney has made significant efforts to get unused prescription medication back from the public. The drugstore is a key participant in the twice-yearly Drug Takeback Day, organized nationally and statewide by law enforcement officials.
In some occasions, Kinney stores even outpaced the haul by local police departments. For instance, in Lamoille County, the Kinney Drugs in Morrisville collected 78 pounds of drugs in the April takeback, three times as much as collected by the Stowe Police Department.
Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux is one of Vermont’s key organizers in the drug takeback; he’s also a former DEA agent.
He said the pharmacies “are very, very good” in combatting the opioid crisis, and he praised Kinney for also taking a stand in deciding to no longer sell vaping devices such as Juul.
Van Vught said the Kinney stores in Waterbury and Waitsfield have a drug takeback box right in the store’s entryway. She said she frequently hears the door open and close without any customer actually coming into the store.
Every month and a half, she sends out a full box of unused prescriptions — not just opioids, but all manner of drugs.
“Twice a year is really nice,” she said of the takeback days. “But you can have people stockpile their drugs.”
Marcoux was surprised by The Washington Post’s numbers, but also not that surprised. He noted that, if you take the number of pills that came to Vermont pharmacies and divide it by the population, the sheer number of pills is mind-boggling.
For instance, Washington County’s population is just over 58,000. Pharmacies in the county dispensed enough pills so that every county resident could have received 213 oxycodone or hydrocodone pills during that six-year period.
Of course, as Marcoux points out, nowhere near the entire population was prescribed pain pills.
But the pharmacies are only buying what they are instructed by doctors, and he is also watching to see if the new laws limiting the number of pills doctors prescribe makes a dent.
“At the end of the day, though, you can’t blame the pharmacies,” he said. “They can’t do anything without a scrip.”