A woman drove up in a sleek silver car, handed a zip-close bag filled with colorful prescription pills out the window and then drove off.
A police officer thanked her and waved. Then he slid the medications into a locked dropbox.
The interaction was the first at Saturday’s opioid take-back event at St. Mark’s Hospital. Anyone could drive through and drop off unused prescriptions by the emergency room. It was quick, convenient, discreet and confidential.
And that was the point.
“A lot of people hold on to medications because they think they might need them later,” said Janet Zarndt, the director of pharmacy services for MountainStar Healthcare, which runs eight hospitals in Utah including St. Mark’s in Salt Lake City. “We want people to turn those in when they’re done using them or they’re expired.”
The event focused primarily on collecting unused opioids — like Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet — that are prescribed for serious pain. In recent years, the pills have flooded into Utah communities and around the United States, resulting in addiction crises and tens of thousands of deaths annually.
As a response to that, hospitals across the nation have changed policies to try to prescribe less of the painkillers. And some, including St. Mark’s and several Intermountain Healthcare facilities in the state, have hosted take back events to try to get any extra pills out of patients’ hands and potentially prevent addiction or overdose or someone in the family taking them.
On Saturday, a handful of people stopped by the dropbox to empty their orange bottles. Many were hospital employees and family members.
Mark Numbers, 42, dropped off some leftover oxycodone he took when he had knee surgery three years ago and some pain pills from when his son had dental surgery. His wife, Krista Numbers, works for St. Mark’s. But, he said, the family didn’t really know what to do with the extra pills.
“We just had them sitting around, and I didn’t want to dump them in the toilet,” Mark Numbers said.
The Numbers have four kids and didn’t want them to get into the pills. Mark Numbers also didn’t like the way they made him feel “loopy.”
Brogan Crockett, a paramedic at the hospital, brought one container of pain pills he’d had since he broke his ankle in a climbing accident two years ago. In his job, he said, he’s resuscitated people who have overdosed on similar medications. He didn’t want that to happen to him.
This is the first time St. Mark’s or any MountainStar Healthcare hospital in the state has hosted an opioid and prescription drug take back event. The parent company, HCA Healthcare, has facilities in others states, though, that have done these in the past. Last year, eight hospitals in Tennessee picked up 200 pounds of pills. And 65 hospitals across the country planned similar events Saturday.
The staff at St. Mark’s didn’t set a pound goal for Saturday — but by 11 a.m., they had about four pounds dropped off by seven people.
“If we collect one pound it’s better than yesterday,” said the hospital’s CEO Mark Robinson. “We’ve got to make sure that our community is safe.”
Unified Police Department officers stood by to take the pills, which can be a felony to possess without a prescription. They locked them into a neon green box with instructions for drop off. No inhalers or liquids were accepted.
Though the event at St. Mark’s was slated for eight hours throughout Saturday only, all UPD precincts allow people to drop off unused and expired prescriptions. Sgt. David Kochanowski said anyone can look for locations throughout the state at utahtakeback.org.
The department works with the federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration to dispose of the drugs by burning them.
St. Mark’s dispenses 3,500 doses of medicine every day, though it’s unclear what percentage of those are opioids. Megan Evans, director of pharmacy services at the hospital, said, “it’s a darn awful lot of them.”
“But we’re trying to reduce opioid prescriptions in our hospital,” added Zarndt. “They aren’t needed for all types of pain. Some things can be better treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen without the risk of addiction.”
Evans and Zarndt worked to make posters throughout the morning to let those driving by know that they could drop off pills. They wore T-shirts that said, “Crush the crisis.” And they talked to folks walking by about the risks of keeping unused or expired prescriptions in the house.
Evans also brought in about a pound of pills she had found at her home. They were mostly vitamins and over-the-counter painkillers. Most people, she said, only use about 50% of the dose they’re prescribed by a doctor. It’s often easy for kids or other family members to access what’s leftover.
Her best friend’s brother got addicted to opioids that way when he was 14 years old. He later “moved on” to heroin, Evans said, and died shortly after. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 130 Americans die from opioid overdoses each day.
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m motivated to do this,” Evans said.
Zarndt nodded her head. She added, “There are more accidental deaths from opioid overdoses than car crashes.”
One woman brought in about two pounds of pills she had lying around her house. She filled about half a plastic bag with them. “We just don’t need them any more,” she said. “Some of these I didn’t even remember I had.”
Others dropped off potassium pills and blood pressure medications. One woman emptied a bottle of Percocet. Most quietly drove off after.