Prescription drug overdoses are sadly everywhere right now, and Alabama is no exception. Morgan County's coroner, Jeff Chunn, said that he rarely goes a week without seeing a death related to an overdose, that he typically sees at least one every week.
Chunn said that Morgan County alone saw 26 overdose deaths in 2015, and that the number seen in 2016 could definitely surpass the previous figure – especially since his most recent records show a total of 22 drug overdose deaths in 2016, which is expected to increase once the blood and urine samples from potential overdoses are properly processed by Birmingham's state forensics office. It could be spring of 2017 before he sees that final number confirmed.
Chunn said that in previous years, there were 16 fatal overdoses recorded in 2014, and 14 fatal overdoses recorded the year before that. Lawrence County's coroner, Greg Randolph, reported similar figures, with 15 prescription overdose-related deaths in 2015. Randolph expects 2016's final number to be about 20 once the numbers are in.
Randolph added that while many may believe these numbers account for the younger crowd, he has actually been seeing more individuals in their 60s and 70s succumbing to fatal overdoses, whether they realize they're actually overdosing or not. Even Lawrence County's Sheriff, Gene Mitchell, said that overdoses are becoming all too common now, compared to when he initially came into office in 2007 when they were somewhat of a rarity. Thankfully, Mitchell says, not all of the overdoses he sees end up being fatal.
Limestone County's coroner, Mike West, has also reported a slight increase in deaths related to overdoses – particularly those related to prescription painkillers, like hydrocodone and oxycodone. He said that Limestone saw six prescription overdose deaths in 2015, but that number rose to eight in 2016.
These numbers, while continuing to rise, have actually seen a slight decrease since former Huntsville physician Shelinder Aggarwar – a pain management doctor who worked with chronic pain patients - pleaded guilty in October of 2016 to illegally prescribing substances to patients, as well as racking up $9.5 million in unnecessary and unused urine tests.
According to his plea agreement, Aggarwal admitted that he saw between 80 and 145 patients a day. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saw Aggarwal as "the biggest pill-pusher in north Alabama," and it's easy to understand why: Aggarwal wrote about 420 prescriptions a day back in 2012, with pharmacies in the area filling over 110,000 prescriptions that year alone that were prescribed by him. Most commonly prescribed by Aggarwal was hydrocodone, an opioid.
Unsurprisingly, more serious cases of theft have been reportedly increasing with the epidemic as well. The more patients get hooked to a drug, the more likely they are to find ways to steal it (or steal the money for it) once their prescriptions have run out.
Athens' Police Chief, Floyd Johnson, believes the state could reduce the number of deaths they see from overdoses if they simply step up their mental health care practices. Johnson believes the system is "broken" and that many of those who call with drug-related issues are simply "crying out for help." Johnson says that what these people need is to realize that there are people in their lives who do, in fact, care about them and who will help them turn their lives around.