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Federal and state legislators seek solution to opioid epidemic

MATT CHAPMAN
Staff Writer

The opioid epidemic sweeping across the country has left state and federal lawmakers alike in search of legislative solutions.

In 2015, 12.5 million Americans misused prescription opioids and an additional 828,000 people used heroin, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Approximately 38,000 overdose deaths were attributed to heroin and commonly prescribed opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone and synthetic opioids like fentanyl during that same year.

“This opioid epidemic is a scourge,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, Lincoln County’s representative in Congress, said. “No community has been left untouched and basically everybody knows someone who has been affected by this crisis. What opioid abuse does to destroy lives and destroy families is absolutely devastating.”

In March, President Donald Trump launched a commission to address the country’s growing opioid epidemic by outlining recommendations and federal resources to tackle prevention and interdiction, while also focusing on addiction recovery and improving access to treatment.

Last year, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which NBC News called the “most significant mental health reform bill in decades,” authorizing state grants to combat the opioid epidemic. Additional reform legislation passed by Congress in recent years includes the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which expands prevention and educational efforts, availability of opioid overdose reversal drugs such as Narcan, resources to provide evidence-based treatment for incarcerated individuals battling opioid addiction and disposal sites, or dropboxes, for excess medication.

McHenry organized a workshop last summer for more than 50 law enforcement personnel from 15 District 10 agencies, including the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Lincolnton Police Department, to address the epidemic’s impact on North Carolina. North Carolina is among the handful of states that have been hit the hardest by the crisis with four cities that rank among the nation’s worst for opioid abuse.

“Ultimately, it’s our law enforcement officers who are on the frontline in this battle,” McHenry said. “We addressed the best practices on how to combat this opioid crisis and we brought in the Drug Enforcement Agency to do the main briefing. Our law enforcement officers also got to hear from a young lady who spoke about the experience of losing her brother to opioid addiction. We’ve got a crisis on our hands that has to be attacked through awareness, prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation as well.”

The North Carolina General Assembly recently passed the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper last month. The bill places limits on the length of time that doctors can prescribe opioid-based painkillers, forcing follow up visits in which the patient and doctor can reassess the situation and determine how to best move forward. The law does not apply to cancer patients and others being treated for chronic pain.

“I don’t think anybody has a great answer to the problem, but we’re certainly doing everything that we can to deal with it,” state Sen. David Curtis, a Denver Republican whose district includes Lincoln County, said.

Lincoln County state Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, said efforts to combat the opioid epidemic had support from both Democrats and the GOP in the state legislature.

“One of the issues that had tremendous bipartisan support over the course of the session was finding ways to deal with the opioid crisis that has gripped our nation and our state,” Saine said. “Pain issues certainly need to be treated, but given the ongoing crisis, forcing follow up visits so that the patient and doctor can have a true assessment of what is needed is a step in the right direction. Drug addiction is a societal ill and being too permissive in some instances has contributed to this growing problem. Turning a blind eye to drug addiction will only cause more deaths and I am glad that the legislature has moved quickly on this legislation.”

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