Congress Must Continue Role in Ending Opioid Epidemic

Appeared as an Opinion article in the July 5, 2018 issue of the Knoxville News Sentinel

By Chris Jones, training specialist, LEIC

In 2016 more than 42,000 people died of opioid overdoses; this amounts to 115 deaths every day. The epidemic has reached all corners of the United States, people from all walks of life, and Congress is working on solutions to end this dangerous epidemic.

Congress has held numerous hearings, passed legislation and used federal resources for preventive educational programs and treatment opportunities for those who suffer from opioid dependency. This is a good start, but communities here in Tennessee need additional support to end this epidemic.

One essential step to reducing overdoses is increased access to Naloxone, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdoses. It works by attaching to the receptors within the brain that opioids target, blocking the opioids’ impact. It has been used for years and has proven to be extremely effective and safe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency tasked with protecting the public’s health, has recommended that Naloxone be co-prescribed in certain situations. Naloxone is recommended for all patients receiving high doses of opioids, for patients who take opioids in combination with certain other medications, and for those who have a history of substance use disorders. These patients all are at a higher risk for misuse or accidental overdose.

Earlier this year, the Knoxville Police Department began carrying and using these naloxone anti-opiate kits in areas of the city hard hit by overdoses. A new state law will make the overdose antidote available without a prescription from any pharmacist willing to participate and get training.

The government can not only save lives but set an example of proper prescribing behavior by ordering the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the department in charge of the Medicare and Medicaid, to follow CDC co-prescription guidelines.

The surgeon general recently weighed in and identified additional individuals that he believes are at a high risk of opioid overdose. This group includes patients discharged from detoxification facilities, patients discharged from emergency rooms after an opioid overdose, and individuals being released from incarcerations and who have a history of opioid use disorder. Congress must act to ensure that these individuals at risk of a future opioid overdose have access to the overdose reversing drug Naloxone.

The positive impact of Naloxone is undeniable in Northeast Tennessee, and especially in Knoxville, where the opioid epidemic continues to worsen. There have been countless lives saved since the inception of this overdose reversing drug, and I believe the number will continue to grow with better accessibility.

In addition to reducing the number of people dying from opioid overdoses, these changes in policy are also cost effective. Opioid-related ICU admissions are increasing in both number and price. However, studies show that arming at-risk patients with Naloxone decreases the likelihood of patient hospitalization and ultimately reduces overdose costs.

We all need to fight the opioid epidemic. Getting Naloxone in to the hands of more Tennesseans will help. As Congress continues this important work, the Tennessee congressional delegation should consider co-prescription of Naloxone for patients who receive Medicare and Medicaid coverage and increasing accessibility of Naloxone for at-risk patients, vulnerable populations and emergency responders. These important changes will put us on the right course to addressing the opioid epidemic, and save Tennesseans’ lives.

Chris Jones is with the University of Tennessee Law Enforcement Innovation Center.