The Journal Record: Task force wants the dope on opioids
By: Sarah Terry-Cobo The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Mike Hunter needs both carrots and sticks to fight a dangerous drug problem.
The Oklahoma attorney general said he’s working to get the right people at the table to holistically address the opioid addiction epidemic the state is facing, as part of a task force dedicated to preventing and treating substance abuse. He will also need consensus and eventually will need money from the Legislature.
It’s important to tackle both demand and supply in order to combat widespread opioid abuse and reduce drug-related deaths, Hunter said. Representatives from several health care segments said they’re ready to provide guidance and input to Hunter and his staff.
First he’s looking at supply. He’ll gather data from the state mental health agency and from the narcotics control agency on how much of the drugs are obtained legally from prescriptions and how much comes from black market sources. He’s also seeking recommendations from physicians and pharmacists on how to monitor and to control legal supply.
Hunter said he needs to hear from substance abuse treatment specialists on how to best treat people suffering from addiction. First-person accounts of people who were formerly addicted is an important puzzle piece, too.
Robert Hicks’ staff is on the front line. He’s the CEO of New Hope Recovery Center, an in-patient alcohol and drug treatment center in Sayre. Residents must first hit rock bottom and be motivated to change; otherwise, they’re likely to go back to old habits when they complete the 42-day program.
Many need psychiatric treatment. Once they’re stabilized, they can concentrate on creating healthy coping mechanisms and learn how to deal with triggers that lead to self-medicating. The majority of female patients also receive trauma treatment and grief counseling.
But there could be 300,000 or more Oklahomans who have brain illnesses and substance abuse issues, Hicks said. National data suggests about one in 10 people are afflicted with both.
Hunter said more inpatient drug centers are necessary, but it could take nearly a decade to get enough money to establish enough beds to meet demand. The commission needs to consider empirical data as it develops a model to fund rehab programs, he said.
Dr. Kevin Taubman said continued education for physicians is an important part of the solution. A surgeon and president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Taubman said university professors are readjusting their approach to treating patients who might meet criteria for chronic pain conditions.
“We have to learn more and understand better the biology of the patient with chronic pain before they get their medicine, so we can see those that could be at risk for addiction,” he said.
Changes requiring mandatory checks into Oklahoma’s prescription monitoring program helped doctors in recent years learn a patient’s prescription history. And though the state’s program was recently expanded to connect with dozens of other states, not all participate.
“We need to insist the databases are nationwide,” Taubman said. “Some border states don’t share (data) with us.”
Debra Billingsley said the Oklahoma Pharmacists Association supports improvements to the prescription monitoring program. Her members tell her they want to be involved in Hunter’s task force. Pharmacists can teach first-time opioid recipients how to take their medicines properly, as well as how to safely store those drugs and how to properly destroy them once they’re no longer needed.
Billingsley said it is important that health care workers can get anonymous data to identify possible trends. That would help combat the problem.
“Then you could focus on which drugs were the number one and what’s different in one part of the state versus another,” she said.
Hunter said he’s looking at other states that have stricter requirements for prescription monitoring programs and is considering recommending stricter controls.
Mark Woodward said his agency welcomes recommendations on how to improve the prescription database. The spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control said it’s important to offer treatment for people who commit addiction-based crimes. But law enforcement should be tough on people who sell drugs for profit.
Hunter said law enforcement agencies will play a crucial role in addressing illegal supplies, including combating Mexican cartels bringing heroin into the state.
“My approach to that will be a concerted, collaborative way to develop a well-organized state and federal approach on the law enforcement side,” Hunter said.
Fighting opioid abuse is critical to help reduce the strain on the criminal justice system, to help people get the treatment they need and help families who are affected. Hunter coached boys’ football when he lived in northern Virginia, and said he saw players who were hurt on the field and received a prescription painkiller, but later became addicted. Their lives were destroyed.
“That is what motivates me, seeing this firsthand, how this can impact a little boy and his parents,” Hunter said. “It’s horrific, the toll is not only on the person but the family.”