ST. GEORGE — The opioid epidemic has become big news over the last several years, and in May, legislators from both of America’s major parties passed bills to address the subject.
Few issues before Congress bring Democrats and Republicans together, but if there is one problem that can generate bipartisan goodwill, it is the opioid dilemma.
“In an era, and in Washington, D.C., that is as partisan as it can be, it’s really nice to be working on issues that were bipartisan, that brings people from Utah and New York together to say ‘this is a problem and the solutions aren’t particularly divisive,'” Utah Rep. Chris Stewart said.
With that spirit of cooperation in the House and Senate, 13 bills were passed (some still requiring Senate approval) in May that address the problem, Stewart said.
Opioids are the leading cause of injury in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 people die each day from opioid overdoses. More people now die from opioid overdoses than die in automobile accidents.
Utah is not immune to the problem, Stewart said.
“It shocks almost everyone from Utah when they realize what a big problem this is for people in Utah,” Stewart said. “Generally our culture is – we think of ourselves as – ‘we don’t deal with this.’ But the reality is we’re ranked fifth in the nation for opioid-related deaths. That’s crazy for a state like Utah.”
Ginger Sorensen, owner and president of TurningLeaf Wellness Center, said she was pleased by the numerous resolutions put forth by legislators this year. She has seen a marked increase in the attention the opioid problem has received over the last several years.
“There’s a lot of buzz out there that we are one of the top states for prescription medication abuse,” Sorensen said.
“I think that’s because people are talking about it, it’s starting to get the attention it was needing.”
One change the new legislation brings will allow a state-by-state approach to handling the crisis.
The demographics of heroin users in New York is different than that in Utah, Stewart said. In states with bigger cities, a lot of the illegal opioid use is done by hard-core drug users, while in Utah that demographic is skewed towards people who ordinarily would not be expected to be involved in drug use; soccer moms, business men and athletes have all succumbed to opioid abuse.
“We need to treat them differently than someone from L.A. or New York,” Stewart said. “So one of the pieces of legislation allows a lot more flexibility in how we spend federal dollars.”
The idea of state-level control was something Sorensen supported, agreeing with Stewart’s assertion that the different demographics of the United States warranted more local control.
“Utah is unique,” she said. “There’s just different needs and different issues that need to be addressed. And when you can localize it, we have local government take care of it, it gives it more attention that it needs.”
Stewart said he has met with a wide range of constituents who have become addicted to opioids.
“I’ve met with mothers who became addicted after the birth of a child. Athletes — people who pride themselves on taking care of themselves physically — who became addicted after sports injuries. A range of people,” he said. “Pretty powerful stories about good people who just get sucked into this.”
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of recognizing that and try to find ways to help them,” Stewart said.
Another bill voted on in May deals with how unused prescriptions are disposed of, Stewart said. As the law stood previously, there was little a person with unwanted opioids could do with them, since the law forbade pharmacies or doctors from taking them. The new law will allow for partial fills of prescriptions to help reduce the amount of unused pain medications.
There is a problem with over-prescribing medication, Sorensen said.
“We have clients in our office, they’re given 3-4 months worth of prescriptions at a time,” she said. “Even when it’s known that they have an addiction.”
The bills recently passed deal with a wide range of issues.
Some of the issues addressed in those bills include the following:
- Helping infants born to mothers with drug addictions.
- Assisting the Department of Veterans Affairs develop comprehensive planning for prescribing opioids to veterans.
- Clarifying “Good Samaritan” laws to protect those who administer opioid overdose reversal drugs.
- Evaluating the effectiveness of grant programs addressing opioid abuse.
- Directing the CDC to provide informational materials to assist in the education and prevention of addiction in teens who have suffered sports injuries.
- Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s web page listing the various opioid-centered bills voted on in May
- CDC web page on opioid overdoses
- Department of Health and Human Services web page on the opioid epidemic