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In Lincoln County, Montana, drug companies sold enough oxycodone and hydrocodone during a seven-year stretch for each resident there to have 61 pills a year.

The former timber and mining hub, in the far northwest corner of Montana, tops the state in per capita pill shipments to pharmacies between 2006 and 2012, according to government data released by The Washington Post.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, it would be a lot lower number now,” said Anita Ivankovig, chief nursing officer at Cabinet Peaks Medical Center in Libby.

The information was released in July by The Washington Post, which, through a court order won the release of a massive federal database tracking the legal sale of every pain pill in the U.S. 

Ivankovig said she would like to see more recent data on her county, noting that policies at the Libby hospital have changed.

“In the last three years we have changed our practice as far as our emergency room,” she said. “We have a lot of things in place that we do prior to giving out any opioids.”

The Washington Post is still fighting in court for the release of more recent data from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The newly released data showed Montana pharmacies received more than 245 million prescription pain pills between 2006 and 2012.

Cindy Stergar, CEO of the Montana Primary Care Association, said without more context, the number of prescription pills that hit the state couldn’t be fully understood.

“It would be like, ‘Well how many antibiotics did they get?’” she said. “What’s the relative number?”

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Stergar said Montanans have indeed struggled with opioid addiction, but underscored that alcohol abuse and meth use are still “our bigger crisis.”

The federal data show the five Montana counties with the highest per-capita pill shipments to pharmacies were Lincoln County (61.6 pills per person, per year); Flathead County (51.6); Silver Bow County (48.4); Lake (46.7); and Sanders County (46.4). Yellowstone County is at 38.7 pills per resident, per year.

The numbers don't necessarily mean residents of the county received the pills — only that pharmacies in those counties were sold the pills, The Post said. Pill recipients could come from elsewhere. 

The Walgreens in Kalispell received the most pills of any Montana pharmacy. 

McKesson Corp. was the largest distributor of the painkillers in Montana. SpecGx LLC was the largest manufacturer of the pills that hit Montana.

“The medical community prescribed opioids justly,” Stergar said. “They thought they were easing pain. They were told they were non-addictive.”

For the past 18 months, Stergar’s organization has trained providers across the state on medication-assisted treatment, a program often used to help treat opioid addiction.

Like Ivankovig, the Libby hospital official, Stergar would expect to see the pill numbers drop in more recent years.

“There’s been so much attention given to it, especially in the health care arena,” Stergar said. “Every provider today knows that opioids are addictive.”

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.