Savannanh Now - Savannah Morning News
Editorial: More help needed with Georgia’s opioid scourge
If a serial killer was on the loose in Georgia, indiscriminately killing men, women and children, citizens would be up in arms and demanding that their public officials take action to prevent any more deaths.
Tragically, such a killer is on the loose — opioid abuse that is causing a rash of fatal drug overdoses. Just as tragically, it appears that painfully little is being done to stop it.
Last Friday, two mothers from Lawrenceville, who each lost their sons on the same day to a suspected opioid overdose, met at state legislative offices in an effort to help educate Georgians about the dangers of opioids. It’s an effort the public should support, as the curse of opioid abuse could hit anywhere.
Indeed, hundreds of people are dying every week across the country from overdoses of heroin, fentanyl and opioid painkillers. Recently, Central Georgia had an outbreak of about 30 overdoses from fake pain pills. Five deaths were associated with the drug, medical officials said.
Dr. Chris Hendry, chief medical officer of Navicent Health Medical Center in Macon, said the problem of opioid abuse “affects all demographics.’’ “It doesn’t just affect metropolitan areas.”
In fact, many rural areas of America’s heartland have been among the hardest hit.
Most of the overdose cases handled at the Macon hospital were treated within 48 hours. But their care, Dr. Hendry said, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The first goal of this anti-opioid effort is educational — spread the word to more people that these street drugs can kill. They leave families devastated.
The second goal is to create more prevention and treatment programs, which are sorely lacking.
Georgia and other states have taken action to prevent use of opioids such as prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, a Gwinnett County Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, recently wrote Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, about the need for the pending Senate health care legislation to address substance abuse issues, especially to treat opioid addiction. Unterman, in her letters, also said she had concerns about proposed Medicaid cuts in the Senate legislation and their potential impact on emergency care for opioid victims.
Some parents of children who died of overdoses in Gwinnett County are calling for a transition center, a recovery center and a therapeutic center for people with addiction problems. But those needs aren’t limited to metro-Atlanta. All areas of the state could benefit from such centers.
The problem, as it often the case, is money. And politics.
In Washington, the Senate leadership’s efforts to salvage the Republican health care bill have focused in part on adding $45 billion for states to spend on opioid addiction treatment.
That is a big pot of money. But addiction specialists said it was drastically short of what would be needed to make up for the legislation’s deep cuts to Medicaid, which has provided treatment for hundreds of thousands of people caught up in a national epidemic of opioid abuse.
The new money would most likely flow to states in the form of grants over 10 years.
Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Rob Portman of Ohio have been leading the charge for the $45 billion to be spread out over 10 years to help address the substance abuse epidemic, which has hit their states especially hard.
Public health experts are concerned that grants aimed at treatment and recovery would not address a multitude of other physical health problems associated with addiction. One example is hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus endemic among people who use needles to inject illicit drugs. Treatment is extremely expensive, but Medicaid has expanded access to it in many states. Many addicts also suffer from diabetes and other chronic conditions, or get endocarditis, a serious heart infection connected to intravenous drug use.
The Affordable Care Act vastly expanded access to addiction treatment by designating those services as “essential benefits.” That means they had to be covered through both an expansion of Medicaid to far more low-income adults and the marketplaces set up under the law for people to buy private plans.
Every day, 91 Americans die from opioid overdoses, medical officials report. That adds up to more than 33,000 people in 2015, or four times as many such overdose deaths as in 1999.
In 2015, 12.5 million Americans reported misusing pain relievers, and 914,000 reported use of heroin.That same year, 88 percent of drug overdose deaths in Georgia were due to opioids. The CDC’s most recent count shows that 1,302 Georgia residents died due to overdose in 2015.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said recently that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. That finding is horrific, as such deaths are preventable.
Many parents of overdose victims have turned into advocates. Some work with Georgia Overdose Prevention, which helps expand access to the anti-overdose drug Naloxone.
According to a recent New York Times report, “One of the biggest reasons for the gap in treatment is there aren’t enough trained doctors to deliver the medicine, trained therapists to deliver the therapy,” said Gary Mendell, the founder and chief executive of Shatterproof, an anti-addiction advocacy group. Mr. Mendell was invited to testify at the first meeting of President Trump’s commission on the opioid crisis this month. “Who’s going to enter the work force knowing the funding is going to run out in 10 years?”
That’s a good question. Given the extent of the opioid scourge in Georgia, we encourage Senators Isakson and Perdue to be part of the search for an answer.