A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly 40 Americans die per day -- about 15,000 per year -- from overdoses of painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, eclipsing the number of deaths caused by heroin and cocaine combined.
"We are in the midst of an epidemic of prescription narcotic overdose," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC during a telebriefing to discuss the newly published data.
The problem of abuse, officials said, is getting worse. The number of deaths represents a three-fold increase over the past decade, and CDC also found that in 2010 alone, there were enough painkillers prescribed to supply every adult with a one-month supply.
"This stems from a few irreponsible doctors rather than by drug pushers on street corners," said Frieden.
It's also an expensive problem. Agency officials put the cost of nonmedical use -- misuse, for the most part -- of prescription painkillers at $72.5 billion based on government and insurance company data.
The sale of prescription painkillers and the number of related deaths vary by state, with Florida, New Mexico and Oklahoma being among the states hardest hit by the epidemic.
Back in April, the Obama administration announced a plan aimed at reducing the amount of prescription opioid abuse. One of the plan's goals is to reduce the abuse rate by 15 percent by 2015.
The plan called for the expansion of statewide prescription drug monitoring programs (PMDPs), programs that safely dispose of prescription painkillers as well as better education for patients and healthcare providers.
PMDPs electronically monitor painkiller prescriptions in each state. Only Missouri and New Hampshire do not have one in place. The other states and the District of Columbia are still trying to figure out how to get their programs up and running, CDC said.
Dr. Scott Fishman, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of California-Davis and president of the board of the American Pain Foundation, said PMDPs can be effective at curbing misuse of prescription painkillers, but they aren't completely foolproof. He also advocates educating providers and patients.
"One of the problems is trying to get states to finance these programs," he said. Another issue is, since they are statewide and not nationally linked, people can just cross state lines and get prescriptions. The federal government, he added, needs to put a more robust program in place that can help monitor usage.
Another issue that could arise with these programs is the monitoring could be too strict, and doctors could be afraid to prescribe the medications.
"People are afraid that narcotics will be harder to obtain in appropriate situations, and I think that's what some of those concerns are about stricter prescription drug monitoring programs are," said Dr. Patricia Baumann, assistant professof of anesthesiology at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta.
Fishman added that a big part of the responsibility lies with providers who aren't properly trained.
"Doctors are not adequately trained in the area of pain management," he said. "There isn't enough focus on pain management in medical schools and beyond."
Patients who are treated for chronic pain should also understand the addictive nature of the medications and take steps to lower the risk of getting hooked on them and keeping them out of the hands of others.
"Patients need to keep them out of the reach of individuals who may not use them safely, keep them locked up, not use them with alcohol or other sedatives, and be aware of other disorders that may predispose them to pain."
"There are also conservative therapies available, such as non-narcotic pain medications and physical therapy," said Baumann. "There are numerous options that should be tried before you go to a narcotic pain medication."