A study conducted by a University of Virginia economist discovered that a number of states, most notably Pennsylvania, under-reported the number of opioid-related overdoses during the early years of the opioid epidemic.
According to the originally reported death statistics, an estimated 8.5 people out of every 100,000 died from opioid-related overdoses in 2014, but the researcher discovered that the reported figures seriously undercounted the number of deaths caused by fentanyl, prescription painkillers and heroin because the specific drug wasn’t always listed on the death certificate.
Christopher Ruhm, the author of the study, applied a formula based on complete death certificates in order to come up with the correct death rate, and found that the true rate was closer to 18 people out of every 100,000, more than double the original figure.
These figures were misreported in several other states, some reporting less like Louisiana that reported an overdose rate approximately 125 percent higher than reported and some reporting more. This misreporting had a dramatic impact on the overall overdose death rankings – with the originally reported rate, Pennsylvania had the 32nd highest mortality rate for opioid overdoses, while the corrected rate had them seventh in the nation.
“Specifically, the corrected death rates demonstrate that opioid involved mortality was concentrated in the Mountain States, Rust Belt, and Industrial North–extending to New England–and much of the South, whereas heroin deaths were particularly high in the Northeast and Rust Belt, but less so in the South or Mountain States,” wrote Ruhm. “The results were less apparent when using reported rates, because high mortality in states such as Pennsylvania and Indiana were concealed by a frequent lack of specificity about drug involvement on death certificates.”
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