Payson • The opioid addiction that ravaged Patrick Alverson’s life started with a back surgery in 2010.
“I was getting prescribed handfuls by the doctor. My opioid use skyrocketed,” the 32-year-old Orem resident said Thursday.
Within three years, he had transitioned to heroin. His only friends were addicts, too. Alverson wasn’t allowed to see his children. He felt caught in a never-ending cycle — all because of a back procedure and access to too many potent pain drugs.
Now clean for three years, he told his story Thursday morning in the lobby of Mountain View Hospital in Payson, as officials launched a new opioid public-awareness campaign in 11 major health care facilities across Utah County, where the opioid epidemic has been especially deadly.
The federally funded campaign’s underlying message urges residents to “speak out” about addiction, “opt out” of opioids whenever possible, and “throw out” any extra painkillers quickly.
The campaign’s goal: Prevent people like Alverson from getting addicted in the first place.
“We’re here to talk about a significant problem we’re facing in Utah County,” said County Commissioner Bill Lee.
Utah County is considered one of five “hot spots” in Utah where emergency room visits for opioid overdoses are highest, Lee said. Communities in the southern end — in cities such as Payson, Santaquin and Salem — are facing opioid overdose death rates that far outstrip the state average, the county commissioner said.
Thursday’s campaign launch is one of several in Utah aimed at combating opioid addiction, including initiatives at the state and county levels. Facilities participating in the Utah County effort are owned by MountainStar Healthcare, Intermountain Healthcare and Wasatch Mental Health.
Those organizations said Thursday they are also taking steps on their own to limit opioid prescriptions.
Eye-catching signs and banners have gone up in Utah County pharmacies, emergency room lobbies, and hospital and clinic hallways and elevators. They encourage patients to ask their doctors simple questions, such as: “Am I at risk for addiction?” and “Will something else work?”
Other campaign signs offer stark statistics associated with opioids in Utah — such as the 7,000 opioid prescriptions filled daily in the state — and information on how painkillers can trigger physical dependence after just a week’s use.
County-specific data gathered between 2011 and 2016 show Utah County saw the second-highest number of overdose deaths in the state, at 259.
The growing problem also recently led county leaders to plan legal action against the pharmaceutical industry, Lee said Thursday. At least five other Utah counties are also seeking legal compensation for criminal justice, drug-treatment and social-service costs associated with opioids.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering several opioid-related bills this session. Among them are new requirements for warning labels and pamphlets to be given out with all opiate prescriptions and that prescribing physicians talk with patients about opioid dangers before writing an initial prescription.
Those measures, HB399 and HB400, respectively, are both sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.
On Thursday, officials with MountainStar Healthcare, Intermountain Healthcare and Wasatch Mental Health all said they were trying to restrict the flow of opioid pills coming out of their hospitals and clinics.
Janet Zarndt, the pharmacy director for MountainStar, said an average of between 41 percent and 71 percent of opioid pills go unused by patients, leaving ample room, she said, for the hospital system to cut back on the volume of pills it is prescribing to patients. MountainStar is also pushing alternative pain treatments in its emergency rooms, and refusing to provide painkiller refills when patients lose their prescription, Zarndt said.
Intermountain Healthcare recently announced an effort to cut back on the number of opioid pills being prescribed by 40 percent. Kevin Brooks, an Intermountain administrator, said that will mean doling out 5 million fewer painkiller tablets each year.
According to Heather Lewis, prevention program manager with the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment, the new awareness campaign was funded with $60,000 of federal grant money, distributed by the Utah Department of Health. It was created in conjunction with a statewide opioid awareness organization called Use Only As Directed.
Lewis underscored that opioid addiction often doesn’t start with “drug-seeking behavior.” A lifelong drug habit can begin with a simple hospital surgery, she said, or a visit to the dentist’s office.
That was the firsthand experience of Alverson, who said he feels lucky to have escaped his addiction — though it took getting arrested and having something of a spiritual awakening to get clean.
Before that first opioid perscription in 2010, Alverson’s doctor never talked to him about their dangers and didn’t ask him about his own addictive tendencies, he said.
When Alverson had another back surgery last year, he was prescribed opioids again. But this time, he had “set up a game plan” with his doctor to ensure he wouldn’t relapse. Alverson was prescribed fewer pills, and someone else kept them for him.
The Orem man also kept in constant contact with his physician and a therapist about his progress.
Ten of the people Alverson knew from his addiction recovery have died of overdoses in the past year, he said, including one of his best friends, who succumbed a few weeks ago.
“It’s a good reminder,” he said. “That’s where I could be.”