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Focus on Women as Opioid-Related Hospital Stays, ER Visits Surge

There’s a startling new snapshot of the nation’s opioid epidemic. In just a decade, the rate of people hospitalized because of pain relievers and heroin rose 64 percent, while the rate of opioid-related emergency room visits almost doubled, according to a report released Tuesday.

The findings are particularly troubling for women.

Opioid addiction: How Ohio has become the epicenter 4:03

Hospitalizations surged 75 percent for women between 2005 and 2014, compared to 55 percent for men the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported. That means the rate of opioid-related hospital stays, which used to be rarer for women, is now about equal among the sexes nationwide — about 225 per 100,000 people.

That’s “absolutely remarkable,” Anne Elixhauser, senior research scientist at AHRQ, told TODAY.

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“Now, in three-quarters of states in the U.S., women have a higher rate of opioid-related inpatient stays than do men,” she said. “For most of the country, it seems to be a larger problem for women.”

Another finding that surprised researchers: The largest increases in inpatient stays and ER visits were seen among people 65 and older, Elixhauser said, adding that most cases among the elderly were due to "adverse effects of opioids in therapeutic use."

Opioids, which are commonly prescribed for pain, killed more than 33,000 people in 2015 — more than any year on record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many people are affected, Elixhauser noted. When AHRQ added up all the opioid-related hospital stays and emergency room visits in 2014 — the most recent year available — the number totaled more than 1.2 million, or about 36 times more than the number of deaths.

“The deaths are horrible and startling, but the [total] burden of opioids is phenomenal,” Elixhauser said.

The CDC last year began urging doctors to ease up on prescribing opioids for pain, advising them to try other methods first as a way to prevent patient abuse of or dependence on the drugs.

In March, President Trump launched a commission to address the growing national opioid epidemic, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie serving as chairman.

“The opioid initiative is one that's incredibly important to every family in every corner of this country," Christie said when his new post was announced.

“What we need to come to grips with is addiction is a disease and no life is disposable.”

Gary Mendell, whose 25-year-old son Brian took his own life in 2011 after battling opioid addiction, was at the White House when the commission held its first meeting last Friday. He submitted his recommendations, including better access to treatment, improving labeling of opioids, and getting doctors to take a course in the proper treatment of pain.

The new AHRQ report is tragic news, but it’s just another indicator of what we already know, Mendell told NBC News. The focus now should be fighting this health crisis.

Opioid addiction has a powerful grip on a person’s body because it chemically alters regions of the brain that control judgment and self-control, Mendell said. There’s also the shame and stigma that someone who is afflicted with an opioid use disorder is made to feel because they have a disease, he added.

“My son absolutely felt it,” said Mendell, founder of Shatterproof, a non-profit focused on ending addiction.

“The last time he ever came home, four months before he died, the very last night, we were sitting on the back porch and the conversation turned to his recovery. He said, 'Dad, some day people will realize I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person who is fighting a tough disease.'”