In Case You Missed It
By The Oklahoman Editorial Board | December 22, 2017
A special commission that has spent months delving into Oklahoma's opioid abuse problem has offered several recommendations to the Legislature. Members should give the suggestions their full attention in 2018.
The misuse and abuse of opioids has been a severe problem in Oklahoma for some time. In 2015, Oklahoma saw 19 opioid-related deaths per every 100,000 people — a nearly four-fold increase in the rate from 1999. Last year, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said Oklahoma outpaced all states in the percentage of residents 12 and older who abuse prescription painkillers.
In seeking the formation of this commission, which the Legislature approved in May, Attorney General Mike Hunter noted that nearly 2,700 people in Oklahoma had died from opioids in the past three years. The toll was likely higher than that, because not all deaths lead to toxicology screenings.
Hunter accomplished his goal to have the commission provide proposals to the Legislature by year's end. The panel offered these five ideas:
• Create penalties for trafficking fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's more powerful than heroin, and whose use has spread tremendously. Often other drugs are laced with fentanyl, unbeknownst to the user, with fatal consequences.
• Create a “Good Samaritan” law that would prevent prosecution for people who call for help during an overdose. This should be a no-brainer. Thirty-seven other states have such a law. But during the 2017 session, Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, killed a bill that would have added Oklahoma to the list.
• Require physicians to use electronic prescriptions, which are more difficult to forge or duplicate. Under a 2015 law aimed at reducing “doctor shopping,” physicians are required to check the state's prescription monitoring database at least every six months before prescribing opioids.
• Set up a database to track overdoses. Simply put, the more information that can be gleaned about this problem, the better.
• Urge changes to federal rules that limit the number of patients a doctor can treat with methadone and buprenorphine to prevent withdrawal from opioids. Those drugs are classified as opioids, but can help ease withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse. Terri White, head of Oklahoma's mental health and substance abuse agency, notes that the federal limit is “so incredibly frustrating, because we have so many patients in need of treatment.”
At the end of his second term, former President Obama pushed to have drugs like methadone and buprenorphine added to patients' treatment regimens. Oklahoma lawmakers can't change federal rules, of course, but they can ask members of the state's Washington delegation to pursue this change.
And, they can work from now until the end of the bill filing period in January to come up with legislation that addresses the other recommendations. Curbing opioid abuse will require action on several fronts; the commission's slate of ideas reflects this reality. Given the severity of the problem in Oklahoma, it would be irresponsible if the 2018 session came and went without some legislative follow-through on the commission's work.
By World's Editorial Writers |
We agree with everything proposed by Attorney General Mike Hunter’s commission on opioid abuse, and look forward to even more.
In October, President Trump declared opioid abuse a national public health emergency, and that crisis is just as real in Oklahoma as it is anywhere else. Opioid abuse is driving up state prison costs and straining human services and mental health systems. Some 813 Oklahomans died from overdoses last year, many from opioids.
The nine-member blue-ribbon Hunter commission has been studying the opioid crisis in Oklahoma since September. It’s initial recommendations include:
• Criminal penalties for trafficking fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is becoming more prevalent;
• Eliminating paper prescriptions for opioids;
• A “Good Samaritan” law to block prosecution of those who call for help during an overdose;
• A state database to track overdoses;
• Changing Drug Enforcement Agency rules that limit the number of patients a doctor can treat with medications to prevent withdrawal from opioids.
Those are common sense ideas that deserve quick attention.
Tulsa County has included the electronic prescription idea in its own legislative agenda. Terry Simonson, the county’s director of governmental affairs, has been going around the state making an impressive demonstration of how easy it is to forge a paper prescription using ordinary office equipment. A more secure electronic prescription system is already largely available.
The commission plans to meet again later this month to develop a more comprehensive agenda. We certainly hope that will include a critical piece in the puzzle: adequate state funding for substance abuse treatment.
The state has been short-changing its mental health programs for years, and the result has been addicts turned away from state facilities and eventually ending up in jail and prison.
It is far, far more expensive to incarcerate an opioid addict than it is to treat the same person, even if you don’t figure in the costs of destroyed families and lost economic productivity.
The Hunter commission is off to a good start. We look forward to it going on to the most critical challenge of the opioid crisis: treating it.