Johnson City Press: Senator says region leading the fight on opioid addiction

Posted on April 6, 2018

Johnson City Press: Senator says region leading the fight on opioid addiction

By Robert Houk 

April 6, 2018

The chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions said he toured Niswonger Children’s Hospital on Thursday to hear from the “men and women on the front lines of the national opioid crisis.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., also told reporters he plans to take what he has learned from health care and law enforcement officials in the region back to Capitol Hill, where he hopes to pass legislation to help the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deal with the opioid problem. That includes giving the FDA authority to require drug manufacturers package certain opioids in smaller doses, as well as providing the FDA and customs officials with more resources to prevent the smuggling of deadly synthetic drugs like fentanyl into the United States.

“We want to make sure we stop it,” Alexander said of fentanyl, which he described as 50 times more potent than heroin.

Alan Levine, executive chairman, president and CEO of Ballad Health, said more efforts are needed to explain to the public just how deadly fentanyl is. He said the chances of surviving an overdose of fentanyl are very slim, even when a patient reaches the hospital.

“It will kill you,” he said.

Leading The Way

Alexander said his legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is a bipartisan effort to address the problems of opioid addition. The senator said he hopes to have a floor vote on the bill by the end of spring.

“You read a lot about Washington being very partisan, but the opioid crisis is something we all see as a priority,” Alexander said.

The senator said his committee would begin holding hearings on the opioid bill next week. In the meantime, Alexander said “Northeast Tennessee has already taken impressive steps” in several areas covered by his legislation. That includes programs to collect unused pain medication.

The Senate bill requires pharmaceutical companies to offer ways to safely dispose of leftover pain medicines. It also asks that drug companies package opioids in specific doses that reduce the number of unused drugs, which Alexander said often leads to tragedy when unsuspecting teenagers or adults experiment with opioids.

Not A Solution

Alexander likened efforts to solve the opioid crisis to a “moon shot” in terms of the energy and resources it will take to get a handle on the problem. He told reporters finding non-addictive pain medicine is the “Holy Grail” to stopping opioid abuse. Even so, the senator said medical marijuana is “not a solution.”

And Alexander said he does not want to see the federal government legislate the amount of pain medication physicians can prescribe to their patients.

“I think the states should make that decision,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, has introduced legislation to limit the prescribed dosage of opioids to no more than a 10-day supply. Roe’s bill exempts patients who are under a doctor’s supervision for long-term pain.