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More than 50 community groups launched a major initiative today in Buffalo to reduce prescription painkiller abuse, especially among young people.

The effort, coordinated by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York, comes amid an unfolding public health crisis here and across the country.

Many patients have benefitted from the development of powerful opioid painkillers and a movement in medicine to treat pain more aggressively. But soaring use of the addictive drugs, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, has led to an epidemic of overdoses and deaths.

“As the leading health insurer in Western New York, it is our responsibility to make sure our community remains vibrant and healthy,” David W. Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield, said in a statement. “We were in a position to make this happen, and we are committed to making sure it does.”

The campaign, which was announced at SUNY Buffalo State, will include advertising in print, radio and on billboards; a website for referrals to services; a documentary that will air on television; and educational programming for students in middle and high school.

The project is up against a huge problem.

Emergency department visits for prescription drug misuse more than doubled between 2004 and 2011. Meanwhile, prescription drug-related deaths have tripled in the last decade – with nearly 17,000 in the U.S. in 2010 – and now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 2011 investigation by The Buffalo News found that at that time the Buffalo-Niagara region was home to two doctors who prescribed the largest number of prescriptions for controlled substances in New York State, and that the rate of prescriptions prescribed for opioid painkillers was 70 percent higher than the state average.

Statistics reflect only part of what has become a human tragedy.

“People are getting prescribed into addiction by doctors and then being left to fend for themselves,” said Avi Israel, who played a key role in initiating the campaign.

His son, Michael, 20, addicted to painkillers and other prescription drugs from treatment for Crohn’s disease, killed himself in 2011 in the family’s North Buffalo home.

“You need to stop addiction before it starts, because once you get addicted, society treats you like a throwaway person,” he said.

Israel said he experienced insurance coverage issues over aspects of Michael’s care and approached Blue Cross Blue Shield as a member to explain what happened to his son and to advocate for a greater effort to address prescription painkiller use.

“They committed on the spot,” he said of the response from the insurer.

Officials said the community groups plan to collectively spend more than $1.2 million on the multi-media campaign that will run at least through December. Others involved include The Buffalo News, Bee Publications, Lamar Advertising, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Eric Mower & Associates, the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, Horizon Health Services, as well as a host of radio and television stations.

“Our company has been closely involved with this issue for years, including prescription frequency monitoring and an in-patient treatment pilot project. But it was clear the time had come for a broader community effort to address what is clearly destroying some of our youth and devastating families,” said Gretchen Fierle, vice president and chief communications officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Here are more details on some key elements of the initiative:

• A continuing medical education course for 250 health-care professionals was held on Sept. 19.

• Blue Cross Blue Shield, in partnership with WNED-TV, funded a 30-minute documentary and school-based curriculum program. The documentary will air multiple times beginning at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 on WNED, WKBW, WGRZ, WIVB, and WUTV. A trailer can be viewed at http://youtu.be/zTukWxdfYFI

• Educational programs for middle and high schools, including curriculum plans and the viewing of the documentary.

• An advertising campaign produced by Eric Mower + Associates and presented by many media outlets, including television, radio, print and billboard.

• Creation of a website – www.painkillerskill.org – to serve as a central resource, including access to a 24/7 toll-free hotline, 855-969-HOPE, that will be managed by Horizon Health Services.

• Thousands of informational cards distributed at local pharmacies, including at Tops, Wegmans and Walgreens, doctors’ offices and schools.

• Public art projects at various locations, including college campuses, spearheaded by photo artist Max Collins.

• Promotion of WNY Prescription Drug Drop Off events, including one sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Agency from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 26. Visit http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov and click on the “Got Drugs?” icon to find a collection site and instructions.

“The abuse of illegal drugs is a serious problem in our society, but not nearly as serious, nor as hidden, as abuse of prescription painkillers,” said Anne Constantino, executive director of Horizon Health Services, which provides addiction treatment.

Launch of the regional media campaign coincided with the release recently of new studies on prescription painkiller use.

Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., scored six or less out of 10 possible indicators of promising strategies to help curb prescription drug abuse, according to a report by Trust for America’s Health.

New Mexico and Vermont scored 10 out of 10 for all possible indicators, while South Dakota scored the lowest with two out of 10. New York scored 9 out of 10. The strategies included mandatory use by doctors of prescription drug monitoring programs and requirements for prescriber education.

Among the report’s recommendations: More effort is needed to educate the public on the risks of prescription drug use, and to help physicians understand how the medications can be misused.

In another study published in the journal Medical Care, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness found that identification and treatment of pain has not improved, despite the increased use of opioid painkillers.

email: hdavis@buffnews.com