By Dave Ongie, News Editor
During his visit to Johnson City last Thursday, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams took a moment to rattle off several key economic indicators often cited by those within the Trump administration to illustrate the strength of the American economy.
Jobs are abundant. The GDP is up. Unemployment is low.
But then Adams paused to acknowledge a potential drag on the economy that has become all too familiar for the medical professionals, members of local law enforcement and other leaders and administrators gathered on the VA Mountain Home Campus for a roundtable organized by Rep. Phil Roe – the opioid epidemic.
“We’re at risk of economic growth stalling because we don’t have workers to fill jobs,” Adams said, who participated in the event along with Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Health.
Leaders tasked with recruiting businesses to our region have certainly faced the headwind of the opioid epidemic, although the problem is certainly not unique to our area. During last week’s roundtable, Adams spoke of a business in his home state of Indiana that had to interview 200 people to fill 20 jobs because so many folks were having trouble passing the drug test that was a prerequisite of employment.
But despite the daunting challenge of curbing the abuse of opioids and other drugs, Adams insisted that progress is being made. He pointed out the decline in life expectancy in the country over the past three years has been stalled as overdose rates have started to decline for the first time in 20 years. Adams said much of this progress is due to the type of cooperation that was on display during the roundtable.
“My motto is better health through better partnerships, and one of the ways you do it is through leaders like Congressman Roe bringing folks together,” he said.
Adams was particularly encouraged to see the diverse group of professionals that greeted him on Thursday morning, and he was impressed by some of the ideas he heard that have been developed through robust partnerships on the local level. Many of these ideas have a heavy focus on prevention, which Adams likened to turning off the spigot instead of continuing to invest resources to “mopping up the mess on the back end.”
Roe agreed with Adams’ assessment that everyone needs to get more proactive in order to make more headway. He advocated for taking the money that is currently being spent on the aftermath of addiction and instead making an investment upstream into diversion programs and interventions that will help keep folks out of the criminal justice system and in the workforce.
“The point I made is we’re already paying for this,” Roe said after the meeting. “The bill is being paid now. We’re just paying it for incarceration and law enforcement instead of paying for treatment and prevention.”
During Thursday’s exchange of ideas, Dr. Robert Pack of ETSU noted that prevention presently has too little focus and too little detail. Also, most innovative programs looking to help prevent addiction rely heavily on federal grant money, which is temporary and makes it hard for even the most successful programs to gain traction.
Adams said the current administration is striving to provide “flexibility for local leaders to customize prevention to fit their area.” The goal is to provide stable funding for prevention and remove strings from federal money in order to allow decision makers on the local level to inject resources where they are needed most.
Adams also urged the private sector to explore the long-term financial benefits of taking a more proactive view toward workers who may be in the early stages of developing an addiction. He said finding ways to retain those employees and help them get treatment is often less expensive than recruiting and training new workers.
Following the roundtable, Roe applauded Ballad Health’s substantial investment in fighting opioid abuse, and called for more inpatient facilities to help turn the tide in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“We have nowhere to go to treat anyone,” he said. “That is the last little lynchpin in this area we need. Our law enforcement people are begging for it, and our medical people are begging for it.”