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The share of injured workers who received opioids to mitigate their pain fell by 18.5 percent after the state passed prescription drug abuse legislation, according to a new study.

In addition, the workers who did receive opioids took 15 percent less, and the share of workers who are taking opioids for chronic conditions fell by 22 percent, according to research conducted by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Workers Compensation Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization.

The state legislature, in a special session in April 2012, passed a bill that established, among other things, an electronic monitoring system for prescription drugs. The law went into effect in July of that year.

Based on opioids dispensed to newly injured workers between Jan. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2014, the WCRI’s study found that the share of workers who received at least one opioid medication within 12 months of their injury fell to 44 percent in 2013 from 54 percent in 2011. In neighboring states without similar reforms, the numbers changed little.

Source: Workers Compensation Research Institute
Vennela Thumula

The workers who received opioids took, on average, 1,247 morphine equivalent milligrams, compared with 1,472 mg before the law. That reduction surprised the study’s author, Vennela Thumula, the nonprofit’s policy analyst.

“With fewer injured workers receiving opioids post-reform, we expected those receiving opioids to have relatively more severe injuries, on average. Therefore, we expected to see a higher average amount of opioids per claim in the post-reform period,” she wrote.

Thumula’s study also found that the share of Kentucky workers with pain medication who received opioids for chronic pain fell from 7.3 percent before the law to 5.7 percent after.

As has much of the nation, Louisville has grappled with an opioid epidemic in the last couple of years. The number of deaths from accidental drug overdoses in Jefferson County spiked 47 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to the coroner’s office. Experts have said that many of the addictions begin after people receive opioid prescriptions to treat pain from injuries or chronic conditions.

The law that prompted the changes was sponsored by 15 Democrats in the Kentucky House of Representatives, including Larry Clark, of Louisville; and Linda Belcher, of Shepherdsville, neither of whom is still a state legislator. The bill was passed 68-19 in the House, 26-12 in the Senate and signed by then-Gov. Steve Beshear.

As of December, 20 states had adopted similar legislation, according to the WCRI.

The study’s findings “may be useful for policymakers and stakeholders in other states who are considering policy solutions to address prescription opioid utilization in their jurisdictions, while balancing the needs of patients who may need opioids for pain management,” said John Ruser, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.

Boris Ladwig

Boris Ladwig

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.