COMMENTARY: Delaware opioid epidemic demands serious approach in General Assembly

At the close of 2016, state health and homeland security officials announced an alarming statistic that we, as policymakers, must tackle head-on in this new year. It’s one of those stats where growth is not viewed as a positive result.

The number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl in Delaware more than doubled over 2015’s statistics, indicating “an increasingly higher percentage … occurring in Kent and Sussex counties.” The synthetic painkiller – fentanyl – is reportedly up to 50 times more potent than heroin. And, between January and September of last year, 90 fentanyl-related overdose deaths were reported, compared to 42 such deaths in all of 2015.

In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks Delaware, compared to the rest of the nation, as number 1 in the rate at which high-dose opioid pain relievers are prescribed (at 8.8 per 100 people).

Ruth Briggs King

This is all to say that, undoubtedly, our state is faced with an opioid addiction epidemic. It’s a costly statistic, not just for those suffering with and in the grips of the actual addiction, but also for their families and loved ones. Without a clear plan of direction and the resources to address this growing problem, more lives will be lost and/or destroyed in Delaware as time goes on. As a member of the House Health and Human Development Committee, I commit to making this issue a priority of mine during the 149th General Assembly.

I am also encouraged by the educational efforts being undertaken by the Division of Public Health (DPH) to help raise awareness about this epidemic and by the Department of State in issuing new opiate prescribing regulations so that they mirror the CDC’s federal guidelines. Those regulation changes took effect on Jan. 1 and, according to the Division of Professional Regulation, they include the following measures that must be adhered to when opiates are prescribed:

• For acute injury or procedure, maximum initial seven-day supply of an opioid medication can be prescribed.

• Beyond seven-day supply, practitioner will be required to check patient’s prescription history in state’s Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), along with informing patient of risks of potential addiction.

• For patients being treated for chronic pain, practitioners must check state’s PMP and administer a urine drug screening at least twice a year; must also consider and discuss alternative treatment options with a patient and do a risk assessment.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of DPH, was recently quoted in a news article as stating that public education is “an important piece of tackling the addiction epidemic” in Delaware. I could not agree more.

The division’s plans for a threefold community outreach campaign for 2017 are currently underway and will include overhauling the state’s addictions website; increasing awareness for parents and family members in order to better understand opioid use and the related dangers; and targeting the prescribing medical community on how to recognize the signs of addiction, as well as the changes in procedures that are geared to tightening the manner in which opioid medications are prescribed.

It has also been reported that Delaware is expected to receive federal grant money over the next several years, likely in the amount of $2 million, to raise public awareness about prevention efforts and to educate the public about the often-misuse of prescription drugs. One of the issues I intend to work on upon returning to session will include oversight of this grant funding to help ensure accountability of how the money is being used.

Another priority this year will be to continue efforts that I began last session to increase awareness, properly identify, and support treatment for substance-exposed infants. A collaborative, uniform response protocol and “plan of care” is needed, as well as access to resources to help stop the addiction cycle. We need a multilevel approach: awareness, prevention, and treatment.

Once all the pomp and ceremony wind down with a new legislature taking office this month, lawmakers will be able to address the opioid epidemic in our state with the seriousness it deserves. I commend our state health officials for making this a top priority this year and for tackling this crisis from all sides, understanding that there are many pieces to this intricate puzzle, which include, unfortunately, an often-over-prescribing medical community. We certainly have our work cut out for us, and we can no longer just hope the tide changes.

Lives continue to be at stake every day, and without that state’s commitment to a clear plan that includes prevention, treatment, and recovery, we can only expect more devastating headlines about how the opioid crisis in Delaware has worsened during 2017.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ruth Briggs King, a Republican of Georgetown, is the state representative for District 37.

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