By Dave Ongie
When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) traveled to Johnson City last Friday morning, he did so looking for real-world solutions to a major health crisis.
Alexander – chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions – toured Niswonger Children’s Hospital, where he met with judges, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, politicians and educators in an effort to find out what is working on the front lines of the Opioid Epidemic. Alexander is preparing to introduce legislation on the floor of the U.S. Senate he hopes will help stem the tide, but he stressed that the war on opioid abuse will not be won on Capitol Hill.
“It’s not like a moonshot, where it can be done from Washington,” Alexander said. “Much of the action will have to be done by Ballad and the children’s hospital and judges and by the mayors and others I talked with today.”
Tennessee has undoubtedly been hit hard by opioid addiction, as has much of the nation. Alexander cited a statistic passed on to him during a recent conversation with Gov. Bill Haslam, who has formed his own task force to educate doctors on the importance of not overprescribing opioids to their patients. There are currently 6.6 million Tennesseans, yet 7.6 million opioid prescriptions were written last year alone.
Ballad Health CEO, president and executive chairman Alan Levine said the two local judges who participated in the discussion with Alexander on Friday morning reported that 65 percent of the 6,000 criminal cases they presided over last year involved drugs.
With that being said, Levine pointed out that there has been progress in combating opioid addiction in our area.
“We started an opioid task force here about two years ago, and we’ve seen a 40-percent reduction in the prescription rate for opioids in the hospitals,” Levine said. “Our ERs have a 26-percent lower rate of prescription for opioids than the national average, and this year, we’re seeing about a 17-percent decrease from even prior years.”
The bill Alexander will try to get through the Senate this spring – which is co-sponsored by Sen. Pat Murphy, a democrat from Washington – has four main areas of focus. The first is to fund research in the area of finding non-addictive pain relievers, which Alexander called the “Holy Grail” in the battle against opioid abuse because it will give those who suffer with chronic pain a much safer option.
The second aim of the bill is to stop the dangerous drug fentanyl before it gets into our country. The drug, which is 50 times more potent than opioids, is starting to seep into our area after being shipped in to our country through the mail, primarily from China.
Third, Alexander said he wants each state to be given the tools to crack down on doctors and pharmacies that overprescribe opioids. Finally, he hopes to facilitate the safe disposal of unused opioids.
“Upper East Tennessee has already taken some impressive steps to do that, and I think other parts of the country can learn from that,” Alexander said.
Alexander also wants to give the Food & Drug Administration the authority to demand that drug companies can only sell opioids in blister packs to ensure the drugs are only available in small quantities.
“We ought to be past the day where you get a bottle of 60 opioid pills, and there are various ways to do that,” Alexander said. “Most of that should be done by the states.”
Levine and Lisa Carter, CEO of Niswonger Children’s Hospital, both agreed with Alexander’s assertion that answers to this crisis will ultimately be found close to home.
“We all talk about the problem, and we know the problem is there, but we have a lot of great people in this community developing true solutions to combat this,” Carter said. “It is a local problem, and we have to have local solutions for it.”
During his visit to Niswonger Children’s Hospital, Alexander was able to see some of the most innocent victims of the Opioid Epidemic – babies who are born addicted to the drugs as a result of their mothers’ use during pregnancy.
While he applauded the work that is being done by the medical professionals at the hospital, Alexander said the plight of babies born into addiction drives home the importance of solving the problem.
“You read a lot about Washington being partisan, and a lot of that is true,” Alexander said. “But on the opiates issue, I believe we all see it as an urgent issue.”