published Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Tennessee's multi-agency plan targets pill addiction 'epidemic'

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the launch of his re-election campaign at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville on May 31, 2014.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the launch of his re-election campaign at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville on May 31, 2014.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ABOUT 'PRESCRIPTION FOR SUCCESS'

The multi-year effort includes:

• Cutting the number of of Tennesseans that abuse controlled substances.

• Reducing the number of residents who overdose on controlled substances.

• Decreasing the amount of controlled substances legally dispensed in the state.

• Increasing access and quality of early intervention, treatment and recovery services.

• Expanding cooperation and coordination among state agencies as well as with other states.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday announced a seven-point, multi-agency plan to combat Tennesseeans’ “epidemic” abuse of prescription painkillers in a state that ranks No. 2 nationally for per-capita use of opioids.

“Obviously it’s a serious problem in Tennessee when one out of every 20 adults has used prescription drugs that weren’t prescribed for them for medical reasons,” Haslam told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference designed to highlight the “Prescription for Success” initiative.

Parts of the plan call for increased focus on drug courts and treatment, which Haslam and administrative officials say ultimately reduce costs rather than repeated incarcerations.

The state ranked No. 13 in drug overdose death, according to a 2011 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that noted Tennessee’s second-place rank in per capita use of opioids.

Joined by Doug Varney, state commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Services, and other agency heads, Haslam said about 221,000 adult Tennesseans used prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes. That almost 5 percent of adults.

Of these, 69,000 are addicted to the drugs, often obtained from friends and family members or prescribed by physicians.

“The abuse of prescription drugs, specifically opioids, is an epidemic in Tennessee, with disastrous and severe consequences,” Varney said, including overdose deaths, emergency department visits, hospital costs, children in state custody, and people incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

Doing more will take money. For example, one goal calls for boosting access to and quality of early intervention, treatment and recovery services. The plan calls for a 20 percent increase in the number of people getting such help. No cost estimates were provided.

“We don’t have that dollar amount yet,” Haslam later told reporters. “We’re going to try to invest more money where it is more impactful.”

Questions of funding have made some addiction experts question how treatment will actually be expanded.

“The concern I have is where are the funds going to be for that treatment?” said Debbie Loudermilk, director of outpatient services for the CADAS alcohol and drug treatment center in Chattanooga.

And when people can’t get treatment for detoxification, they will usually turn to another category drug. Like other addiction specialists, Loudermilk is concerned the clampdown on prescription drug use will open the door to increased heroin usage, which is cheaper.

“How can we brace ourselves for the number of people who may gravitate to other categories in the opiate family?” she asked.

A major part of Tennessee’s war on prescription drug abuse was already implemented last year with the development of its substance control monitoring database.

The database has been a “game-changer,” for doctors, said Rae Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, which has been working to educate doctors about the database and how to recognize doctor-shopping.

The medical society supports the governor’s plan, especially anything that “increases access to treatment,” she said.

Contact staff writers Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550 and Kate Harrision at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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