Home  /  News  /  Newsroom

Collaboration leading Oklahoma’s opioid battle

Collaboration leading Oklahoma’s opioid battle

By: Sarah Terry-Cobo | The Journal RecordDecember 11, 2017


Dr. Jason Beaman, left, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa, speaks as Jessica Hawkins, senior director of Prevention Services with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; Attorney General Mike Hunter; and Julia Jernigan, executive director of the Oklahoma Behavioral Health Association, listen during a roundtable discussion on the state’s opioid epidemic hosted by The Journal Record at KOSU’s Film Row studio in Oklahoma City Monday. (Photo by Brent Fuchs)

OKLAHOMA CITY – State policymakers, agency officials and health care providers moved quickly in 2017 to collaborate on combating a deadly drug crisis.

But the money needed to fight that epidemic hasn’t risen proportionally, said Dr. Jason Beaman. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said a major court case he brought against drugmakers could potentially provide a cash infusion for prevention and treatment. However, it will take several years before that money could start flowing.

Beaman and Hunter were among several who spoke Monday at the second in a roundtable series The Journal Record hosted about opioids at KOSU’s Film Row studio. Jessica Hawkins, Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services senior director of prevention services, and Julia Jernigan, executive director of the Oklahoma Behavioral Health Association, discussed how those who help people with brain illnesses are working to address the issue.

Read more about opioid abuse. 

Hunter said since the first roundtable held in July, the stakeholders have been collaborating on identifying the issues and providing recommendations for state lawmakers. He is the chairman of the state’s opioid abuse commission, which brings together health, orthodontic and mental health providers, pharmacists, medical school professors and law enforcement agencies to develop solutions.

Funding treatment is a crucial component to addressing the crisis the state faces.

“Being smart on crime means you have to be smart on funding treatment and rehabilitation,” Hunter said. “We’ve never funded drug courts to the extent we need to.”

Oklahoma has one of the highest rates in the nation for opioid deaths. Prescriptions for the opiate-derived synthetic drugs became increasingly common for non-cancer patients in the early 2000s. In recent years, overdose deaths have skyrocketed.

Beaman, Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Department chair and professor at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, said doctors were advised by professional societies in the last two decades that it was unethical to not treat patients’ pain.

For some who become addicted to opioids, the nationwide trend is to move on to street drugs such as heroin when they can’t get access to the pills.

Beaman said the opioid crisis meets the public health parameters for an epidemic and is akin to the bubonic plague of the 17th century or the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. But funding to the state mental health agency hasn’t risen proportionately in the last decade as opioids affect more people.

Jernigan said the state’s two medical schools are collaborating with the mental health agency to help address people who need help. There are some federal grants available specifically for opioid addiction.

Hawkins said part of the problem with federal funding is that Oklahoma must compete with other states, U.S. territories and on occasion, tribes, for that money. It’s tenuous to show scientific evidence that Oklahoma’s programs are working with short-term grants.

“We need a sustainable way to fund prevention treatment,” Hawkins said. “If we’re going to address this overall, we have to focus much more on prevention, for which we need a long-term strategy.”

Beaman said OSU’s Center for Health Sciences is working to give doctors and medical students the most accurate, up-to-date information on prescribing potentially addictive narcotics. OSU is the only medical school in the nation that requires an addiction treatment course for all its students, he said.

Hunter said he’s working to get money for addiction treatment. He is suing 13 pharmaceutical manufacturers and their affiliates, alleging there was a vast, decades-long conspiracy to deceive doctors on the addictive nature of opioids for non-cancer patients. A damage estimate hasn’t been established yet in the case, but he said Monday he’s seeking billions of dollars.

If he wins the case against the drugmakers, he said he would push to dedicate that money in a trust fund, similar to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust.

“My goal would be to dedicate that money to those who have suffered,” Hunter said.

The outcome would still be a few years away; a trial date hasn’t been set and his attorneys asked the judge to schedule the trial to begin in May 2019.

He said it’s critical that the medical community continues to collaborate on reducing the number of prescription opioids available on the market. But treatment is just as important.

“But unless you have committed to funding to provide treatment options, you’re only solving half the problem,” Hunter said. “So you’re not really solving the problem.”