Disposing of Prescription Drugs Safely – A South Jersey Initiative

Lilo H. Stainton | February 21, 2017 | Health Care
Special kits allow drugs to be safely destroyed and kept out of the wrong hands, also reduce their potential to cause pollution

Healthcare providers have teamed up with community groups in South Jersey on a new program that could eliminate several million leftover prescription pills before these drugs can be diverted for improper use.

As one of several efforts to reduce their region’s addiction epidemic, leaders at Inspira Health Network, which operates three hospitals and dozens of other healthcare facilities in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, have purchased some 50,000 plastic pouches with a carbon substance that — when filled with unneeded pills and tap water — absorbs and safely destroys all the active ingredients. The biodegradable devices can then be tossed in the trash.

With help from an alliance of local partners — including the county health departments — Inspira plans to distribute these devices to tens of thousands of patients so they can get rid of their extra medicines, reducing the availability of the highly addictive drugs to others and ensuring they don’t pollute the local groundwater. (Flushing pills or disposing of them in the trash may keep them from addicts’ hands, but rising levels of pharmaceuticals are causing alarm for those who monitor soil and water.)

Unused prescription pills left in medicine cabinets

The technology, developed by a Minnesota company several years ago, is becoming increasingly popular nationwide, but Inspira may be the first to roll it out in New Jersey; the counties the company serves have some of the highest opiate overdose mortality rates in the state. Since their campaign launched in December, the network has distributed nearly 7,000 pouches, each with the capacity to deactivate 90 pills. In January, a separate coalition in Atlantic County announced it had also purchased 2,500 kits for local distribution.

“We know that unused prescription pills that are left in medicine cabinets too often are the supply source for young people, and how addiction starts. We have to look at everything we can do to prevent prescription drug abuse,” said Assemblyman Bruce Land (D-Cumberland).

“This is an innovative but fairly easy way that residents can be part of the broader solution to end this epidemic and save lives.”

Both programs involve the Deterra Drug Deactivation System, invented by Minneapolis-based Verde Technologies, and distributed to patients through partnerships Verde forms with pharmaceutical companies, healthcare providers and others. Mallinckrodt, a drug giant based in Ireland that produces many addictive substances, has purchased at least 1.5 million pouches in the past year alone.

According to studies shared by Verde, the system absorbs 98 percent of the active ingredients in opiates and significant amounts of other drugs, like antibiotics, that can also cause problems if diverted to other users— or leached into the soil or water.

Six out of 10 patients had pills left over

Hundreds of millions of opiate prescriptions are written annually in the United States and, according to Deterra, six out of 10 patients had pills left over they didn’t need. The widespread availability of these drugs has become a growing concern nationwide, prompting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tighten prescription guidelines last year. Gov. Chris Christie went even farther, signing a law last week that created the most stringent limit nationwide: just five days of drugs for an initial acute pain prescription.

Christie’s law also requires physicians to better inform patients about the danger of these addictive drugs and requires them to use the state’s prescription monitoring database, designed to help doctors spot patients who are abusing these medications. In recent years Christie has formalized agreements with multiple other states, including Pennsylvania and New York, so that physicians here can see if their patients are doctor-shopping across state lines.

The Deterra pouch program, developed by Carolyn Heckman, Inspira’s vice president of community relations, is just one approach the network is taking when it comes to tackling the impact of addiction. The company has also paid to distribute Narcan, a fast-acting drug that can reverse an opiate overdose in minutes, and also offers a suite of behavioral health programs for patients with mental health and addiction issues.

While Inspira has shared the technology with the public at health fairs and other events, most of the kits will be distributed through the Cumberland/Salem/Gloucester Health & Wellness Alliance, a group it helped form in 2010 to connect area residents with local programs and social services. Some Inspira facilities also have Deterra “buckets,” or larger disposal units, which can absorb more than 1,000 pills, and are available for public use.

“This is a process that residents can use in their own homes to deactivate medications and dispose of them in the trash. This removes the potential for leftover drugs to get into the wrong hands and end up in a school or neighborhood. It makes sense,” noted Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May), who joined with Land and Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) in praising the benefits to their district, which includes Cumberland County.

Organizations based in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties can request Deterra kits through Inspira’s Drug Abuse Prevention webpage. The page includes links to a survey for those who have used the system, which Inspira encourages people to fill out. Individuals can also purchase the Deterra pouches online, from various online retailers; they come in small (15 pills), medium (45 pills), and large (90 pills) sizes; a ten-pack of the medium sized model costs about $83.