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The formal introduction of Project Lazarus to Forsyth County on Thursday was meant to do more than just raise awareness of the statewide initiative aimed at reducing prescription-drug overdose deaths.

Officials want to form a coalition that embraces promising strategies for countering what some state and local law-enforcement agencies are calling an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.

The local event was aimed at emergency room physicians, hospitals, behavioral health providers, family doctors, faith-based programs and law enforcement. The goal is assisting health care providers in getting the appropriate pain-control medication to patients who need it, while minimizing the risk of addiction and dealing more effectively with dependence issues.

“Those groups are beginning the brainstorming for coming up with county-specific collaborations, projects and ideas to address the issue,” said Michael Cottingham, a spokesman for Community Care of N.C. “The biggest success of the program across the state is having community partners take the lead role.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for 2011 showed that more Americans died between ages 25 and 64 from a drug overdose than motor-vehicle accidents, with 55 percent of the overdose fatalities coming from pharmaceutical drugs.

Teens and young adults, in particular, are using and abusing such painkillers as hydrocodone with the brand names of Vicodin, Oxycontin and Valium, law-enforcement officers said.

Project Lazarus debuted as a pilot program in 2008 in Wilkes County to deal with a particularly high rate of overdose deaths. The program has helped drop the Wilkes overdose death rate by 69 percent and reduce substance-abuse related emergency department admissions by 15.3 percent.

The main thrust has been by the Northwest Community Care Network and Fred Brason II, president of Wilkes’ program. In February 2003, Community Care provided $2.6 million to Project Lazarus from financing awarded by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and the N.C. Office of Rural Health and Community Care.

The program is known for providing anti-overdose kits to at-risk patients who are starting methadone treatment to try to kick opioid addictions. The kits include the drug naloxone (known as Narcan), which reverses opiate overdose by blocking the brain's opioid receptors.

There are 14 Triad and Northwest North Carolina participating pharmacies, including six in Winston-Salem. For more information, go to http://www.nwcommunitycare.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Naloxone-Flyer.pdf.

The program also has helped coordinate statewide medication “take-back” events conducted by law enforcement, educational and public-safety groups. Some pharmacies have created drop boxes for safely disposing expired or unneeded prescription drugs.

“There are tools out there, but the coalition could find out that new tools tailored for Forsyth need to be created,” Cottingham said. “They could create a brand-new program, they may decide to begin doing awareness ads. It’s all up to the group to raise awareness to reduce misuse and accidental deaths.”

Some methods of obtaining painkillers have been by buying expired or leftover medicine, forging prescriptions, breaking into pharmacies, and going to several doctors and complaining of pain, then persuading those doctors to write multiple prescriptions.

Sheriffs, such as Sam Page in Rockingham County and David Grice in Davidson County, say they continue to deal with increases in break-ins and home invasions caused by those trying to steal prescription drugs, particularly from the elderly. In Winston-Salem, law-enforcement officers have caught drug dealers selling painkillers on the streets.

Cottingham said that Project Lazarus has played a role in hospitals “reducing the amount of narcotics someone can be released with when discharged from the emergency department.”

In October, a change in federal law requires patients needing a prescription filled for hydrocodone combination products to go to a physician's office to pick up a signed prescription slip for a 90-day supply and take it to the pharmacy, rather than having the prescription faxed or emailed to the pharmacy. A return doctor visit is required to get the next 90-day supply.

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