Sep 21 2018
No state has been spared from the scourge of the opioid epidemic. In 2016 alone, 42,000 Americans died due to opioid-related overdoses– or about 115 Americans per day.
Our state of Utah has also been badly hit: nearly 6 Utahns die per week from opioid-related overdoses and three rural Utah counties were identified recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being among the most vulnerable nationwide.
We cannot let this tragic epidemic continue without a fight. And thankfully, Utahns have already been stepping up to the plate.
For years, groups like the Utah Coalition for Opioid Overdose Prevention and the Utah Department of Health have worked diligently to combat this crisis. And since last year, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and DEA District Agent Brian Besser have complemented their efforts by forming the Utah Opioid Task Force, which I have been honored to serve on as Co-Chair.
Task Force Members have traveled across the state educating citizens on the perils of opioid dependency and the importance of treating addiction as a disease. They have promoted Naloxone use by first responders, a powerful medication that can often reverse an opioid overdose. They have backed successful DEA and attorney general prosecutions of drug cartel players, and supported various treatment and recovery services.
Furthermore, the Task Force also has worked with physicians to change prescribing practices. As a result, opioid prescriptions have been on the decline.
These initiatives have yielded real results around our state. Similar efforts can work in every state in the union, if given time and space to tailor themselves to specific local needs. But just as we know the opioids crisis has many sources, we know it’s going to have at least as many solutions.
And we also know – from common sense and hard experience – that unaccountable federal grant programs aren’t going to help. Unfortunately, the opioid legislation recently passed in Washington features just that: dozens of grant programs with little accountability for how these dollars will be spent and minimal measurement of their effectiveness.
To be sure, I am not opposed to the entirety of the bill. There are some good measures that could produce real results. For example:
The bill strengthens the Customs and Border Protection’s authority to discover and destroy packages containing illegal controlled substances;
It establishes a system to identify and stop suspicious orders of opioids from drug manufacturers and distributors;
And it requires the FDA to review challenges and barriers of developing non-addictive pain medications, and to update its processes to ensure it is capable of assessing the safety and effectiveness of novel drugs before approving them.
Unfortunately, these measures did not come to the Senate floor for us to consider individually. Instead, they were lumped together with dozens of other bills in this 350-page package. And each Senator was forced to either support or oppose the entire package.
It is crucial to recognize that there is no single opioids crisis. There are dozens. There is a rural crisis, and an urban one that is different. There is a crisis hitting poorly educated Americans and one hitting the highly educated. There’s one that’s hitting adults, and another that’s hitting kids.
And all of these vary by region. In some states overdoses are caused more by prescription drugs, while in others they are caused more from illicit drugs like fentanyl. In some cases, deaths are caused primarily from a combination of drugs.
As findings from the Social Capital Project at the Joint Economic Committee show, there is also a strong social component to this crisis. Individuals who either never married or are divorced—and especially those with only a high school education—represent a higher share of those who have died from opioid-related causes.
These factors cannot be ignored. We must find ways to reach these individuals and reintegrate them into our communities.
Utah’s efforts and results are reason to hope. Our state was one of just 14 where opioid deaths actually fell last year.
We need to continue this local focus here in Utah – where we can best tailor our solutions and effectively reach people succumbing to the grip of the opioid crisis. American lives depend upon it.