State Pushes Drug That Saves Money, Costs Lives

Sara Taylor, mother of former King County 911 dispatcher Angeline Burrell, describes her daughter's battle with excruciating chronic pain. In early 2008, Burrell's methadone dose was doubled. She died two days later. At left is Taylor's husband, Dale.

Washington state’s cost-cutting program may lead to hundreds of deaths per year through the use of methadone for pain patients.

Map the deaths and you see the story.

Assign a dot to each person who has died in Washington by accidentally overdosing on methadone, a commonly prescribed drug used to treat chronic pain. Since 2003, there are 2,173 of these dots. That alone is striking, a graphic illustration of an ongoing epidemic.

But it’s the clusters that pop out — the concentration of dots in places with lower incomes.

Everett, whose residents earn less than the state average, has 99 dots. Bellevue, with more people and more money, has eight. Working-class Port Angeles has 40 dots. Mercer Island, upscale and more populous, has none.

For the past eight years Washington has steered people with state-subsidized health care — Medicaid patients, injured workers and state employees — to methadone, a narcotic with two notable characteristics. The drug is cheap. The drug is unpredictable.

The state highlights the former and downplays the latter, cutting its costs while refusing to own up to the consequences, according to a Seattle Times investigation that includes computerized analysis of death certificates, hospitalization records and poverty data.

Methadone belongs to a class of narcotic painkillers, called opioids, that includes OxyContin, fentanyl and morphine. Within that group, methadone accounts for less than 10 percent of the drugs prescribed — but more than half of the deaths, The Times found.

Methadone works wonders for some patients, relieving chronic pain from throbbing backs to inflamed joints. But the drug’s unique properties make it unforgiving and sometimes lethal.

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