Donovan’s stats on opiate addiction ‘not accurate’
By Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | June 28,2012
MONTPELIER — Democratic candidate for state attorney general TJ Donovan dropped a shocking statistic during a radio interview last week.
As Donovan discussed the problem of prescription drug abuse in Vermont — a centerpiece of his primary campaign — he told Vermont Public Radio listeners: “One in seven babies born at Rutland Regional Medical Center are born opiate addicted.”
That is far from correct, say health officials.
“That’s not accurate,” said Dr. Daniel Foley, the chief of the obstetrics and gynecology department at RRMC. “That would be really something.”
The Vermont Department of Health also says it has no data that suggest anything close to a 14 percent opiate addiction rate among newborns in Rutland.
Instead, the most recent Health Department data suggest a less than 1 percent addiction rate for newborns at Rutland Regional Medical Center, which is lower than the statewide average.
This is not the first time the one-in-seven statistic Donovan used has emerged in the last year, and it’s not the first time data used to support what politicians from across the political spectrum call an epidemic of prescription drug abuse have been questioned.
After the one-in-seven statistic came to the attention of the Health Department in November, officials there tried to determine its accuracy and wondered about its source.
In an email Nov. 22, Jennifer Hicks, the research, epidemiology and evaluation unit chief at the Health Department, wrote to a colleague that “we can’t find anything that even comes close. From our read of the latest hospitalization data, it would be fewer than 1 percent ... so I’m not sure where that number is coming from.”
From 2007 to 2009, 0.9 percent of newborns at Rutland Regional Medical Center — or 14 out of 1,493 — were “born addicted from a drug dependent mother,” Hicks wrote. The statewide rate was 1.8 percent for the same period.
The Health Department’s latest data end at 2009.
Foley, who has been with Rutland Regional Medical Center for 30 years, said that since 2009 there hasn’t been a spike that would bring it to 14 percent, though he didn’t have exact figures.
“It’s present, but it’s a very small number, thank God,” Foley said.
Donovan also gave a similar statistic to The Newport Daily Express, which quoted him this month saying: “One in seven babies born in Rutland will be addicted.”
Hunt Blair is the deputy commissioner of the division of health reform and the state health information technology coordinator at the Department of Vermont Health Access.
Blair wrote in an email to VPR that the one-in-seven figure appears to be an “urban legend” that doesn’t help the debate over prescription drugs.
“Clearly even a single baby born in this unfortunate circumstance is one too many, but this kind of exaggeration does not help the cause of public information or public health,” he wrote.
The Donovan campaign said the statistic he used came from Rutland’s Republican Mayor Chris Louras — who has endorsed Donovan — and a television news story that apparently used a different version of a statistic related to opiate-addicted mothers.
Louras said the statistic he shared with Donovan centered on mothers with narcotics problems, not babies with opiate dependencies.
Louras said he first heard a version of the statistic on a WCAX newscast and called Thomas Huebner, president of Rutland Regional Medical Center, to register his concern.
“They were talking on WCAX about one in seven babies being born with dependency, and that just seemed impossible to me,” Louras said. “And (Huebner) said the one-in-seven figure is real, but that it’s not one in seven babies with opiate issues, it’s one in seven mothers.”
Foley has offered such a statistic on mothers in the past. In 2011, he said, “one in seven women who were delivering here had a history of substance abuse, a history of addiction, active use of opiates, or were in a program for which they were being cared for, and those patients were usually on Subutex” — a substance to control their opiate craving.
Jay Els, Donovan’s communications director, said Donovan was unavailable for an interview.
But Els said, “There was never any intent by the campaign to exaggerate anything, nor do we have to. The stats do speak for themselves.”
Though the newborn addiction problem at RRMC isn’t as bad as they initially thought, Els said, prescription drugs are still a huge issue in the state and the nation.
“It definitely does not make me or TJ rest much easier when it comes down to drug addiction here in Vermont,” said Els.
Donovan has criticized his primary opponent, 15-year incumbent William Sorrell, as failing to show leadership on prescription drug abuse. Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney, calls it Vermont’s top public health issue and top public safety issue.
But the issue of prescription drug abuse is not confined to the attorney general’s race.
Gov. Peter Shumlin made prescription drugs a major issue during the legislative session this year as he and allies in the Senate tried to give police access to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System without requiring them to get a warrant. The House wouldn’t go along, and the bill died.
Shumlin has consistently called prescription drug abuse an epidemic.
But amid intense negotiations in May between the Senate and the House on the monitoring system bill, The Associated Press published a story pointing out that a report from Shumlin’s own Health Department said the problem in Vermont may actually be improving.
“The most recent survey data indicates that the prevalence of prescription drug misuse in Vermont is declining or remaining steady for all drug categories including Rx opiates,” the Health Department report said. “This appears to be a consistent pattern across several independent surveys.”
Shumlin and Health Commissioner Harry Chen said that data didn’t tell the whole story and there is indeed an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
“The statistics about a population base are really different, because we know we have this addicted population and within that population it clearly is an epidemic in terms of how it ravages their lives,” Chen said at a news conference where Shumlin chastised House lawmakers for blocking efforts to give police warrantless access to the database.
“The problem is this simple: It is an epidemic,” Shumlin said at the same news conference.