By Collin Brooks
There are more opioid prescriptions than people in the state of Tennessee and nearly four people die each day due to drug overdoses. That is more than the number of people that were killed in auto accidents. Of those overdoses, 72 percent were caused by opioids.
Staggering numbers like that made state House Speaker Beth Harwell form a new legislative task force that is motivated with trying to eradicate the opioid epidemic that is haunting the state of Tennessee. Most of the 7-member task force were on hand at East Tennessee State University on Monday to hear about how the epidemic is crippling the region.
“Around the country and especially in East Tennessee, we are facing an epidemic,” said Harwell, who has told other media outlets she will make her decision on a 2018 gubernatorial bid after this legislativesession is over. “We really, truly are the epicenter of the opioid crisis.
“My hope is that this task force will look into the possibilities of private programs, measure the result and determine the best practice. The legislature has taken some very important steps to fight this epidemic, but if additional legislation is needed, I want this task force to develop it.”
And even though plenty of attention is being given to the opioid problem, it isn’t getting better, according to Dr. Robert Pack, Director of the Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment at ETSU — which was created last year.
“The state of the problem in Tennessee is actually worsening,” he said. “It’s been very troubling to see a 15 percent rise in overdoses last year. Some things are getting better. We’ve done a better job at prescribing. The prescribing of opioids has started to decrease per unit that are going to patients.”
Behind that though is a need, he said, for people that have been opioid dependent for a long time to use treatment drugs to cope with the side effects of detox. That means suboxone prescriptions and other drugs that are used to help curb the addiction are increasing and being abused.
“That state of the problem in the state of Tennessee is still very, very bad,” Pack said. “And we need to work in a comprehensive and systematic way to fight the problem.”
Currently, they are finding in their research that there needs to be a holistic approach to treatment, because what might work for one person may not work for the other. Pack said that many of the good ideas and programs that are out there are done in a fragmented way. That means the vision for the joint-center that ETSU and Mountain States hope to open this summer will be a comprehensive approach.
“To totally address the problem, we are going to need a coordinated effort between all units of government and the public sector. We’re going to need current, rapid and high resolution data to share between all stakeholders,” Pack said.
That and fostering public and private partnerships, which he shared had been valuable in MSHA’s relationship with ETSU, will be extremely valuable. President and chief executive officer of Mountain States Health Alliance Alan Levine said that with the meeting, the group was taking the first step in realizing there is a problem.
“I am actually glad that we are here talking about this, this has been a quiet killer for so long, now we are actually openly talking about this problem and that is the first step in getting to understand that there is a problem,” Levine said. “People are dying because of it and it’s relevant that we are actually here having a dialogue. So that is a big victory for all of us.”
In being open, Levine also shared a personal battle that he and his family dealt with when his daughter was addicted to opioids. His daughter voluntarily attended a drug addiction center in Atlanta and has overcome her addiction and is pursuing her dream. But he said, there is nowhere in the region that provides those services.
“There is no robust residential addiction treatment facility in this region. We want to invest in that,” Levine said.
Levine said that he fears if the problem isn’t curbed soon, then it could evolve with new laws like the recreational legalization of marijuana in several states. Now, the bad guys will turn to heroin as their main source of revenue. Heroin is cheaper on the market than pills, which could start a heroin and HIV problem.
Noting the growing problem with opioids, Levine said that hundreds of babies were born with some form of drug exposure every year. In January and February alone, the MSHA hospitals in Tennessee and Virginia, have delivered 102 newborns that were affected by exposure to harmful substances before birth. That included alcohol and tobacco exposure, along with cocaine and prescription opioids.
MSHA is dealing with the onslaught of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome babies being born by investing capital to grow their facilities to meet the high demand for the special rooms that are needed to care for the newborns.
Scenes like those are unsettling to Rep. Matthew Hill, who quickly pointed out that going into the NICU and seeing the babies inflicted with NAS as one of the saddest things he’s seen in his entire life.
“It just so sad and the really, truly sad part is it’s preventable,” Hill said.
Hill — who is not a member of the task force, but will work in close connection according to Harwell — was on hand to commend his peers and the members of the ETSU and MSHA community for coming together on a topic that is crippling the area. That will come in the new Overmountain Recovery Center that will service eight Tennessee counties and four Virginia counties.
Dr. Pack said he hopes that clinic will be open this summer as a joint facility with Mountain States Health Alliance and Frontier Health. It will be funded by Mountain States Health Alliance. All money that is made will be revenues that come back from the clinic, past cost, that will be reinvested in the center for more activities.
In the treatment facility that ETSU and MSHA will work together on in Gray, Pack said the group will stop trying to recreate the wheel. There are already good programs in place, according to Pack. And when they have success they need to share the information.
“We need to give our success away, quickly, and to those who need it the most,” Pack said.