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Tennessee Makes Inroads on Opioid Epidemic

Tennessee has made progress in fighting the opioid epidemic.

The state has declared the massive problem the No. 1 public health crisis in the state and painkiller prescriptions have fallen from 8.5 million to 7.8 million over the past three years.

Companies like BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee are funding efforts to keep prescription drugs from the wrong hands and medical schools are working with a future generation of doctors to curb overprescribing pills.

However, there is still a lot of work to do. A sixth of the state's population has suffered from misusing or abusing opioids, and the number of prescriptions, though lower than in 2013, still means there are more of them than people in all of Tennessee.

Tennessee is ranked among the top two states in painkiller prescription rates.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry and its allies in the Pain Care Forum, a coalition that discusses opioid-related issues monthly, have spent more than $880 million in lobbying and campaign contributions over the past decade in Washington, D.C., and state capitals to seek to influence members of Congress and state lawmakers. Of that, $1.6 million went to Tennessee politicians.

Lawmakers told The Tennessean that the donations do not affect their votes, but the optics of it all are awful and would fairly give taxpayers the impression otherwise.

The forum and its members do not want to see limits on opioids and have pushed the narrative that these drugs are essential to relieving chronic pain for millions of Americans. That is a position the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently challenged, saying that "opioids are not a first-line therapy."

These drugs are highly addictive and deadly — 1,269 Tennesseans died of overdoses in 2014 and the CDC reports more than 165,000 overdose deaths nationwide since 1999.

Recent efforts to control or limit them have led to desperate consumers seeking relief in illicit, cheaper and deadlier drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

A blanket ban would lead to more people going underground and is not the answer. The heart of the problem is addiction, and the solution is helping people seek treatment and recovery.

Last July Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into a law a measure that provides more money to states for treatment. Most important, the federal government showed foresight by treating addiction no longer as a criminal issue, but as a health issue.

To its credit, this year the Tennessee General Assembly allowed a 2-year-old tone-deaf law to sunset that criminalized mothers who give birth to drug-dependent babies because of their addiction.

What experts would change to fight opioid abuse, misuse and over-prescription Created with Piktochart

State and federal leaders with the help of medical professionals and the community at large will continue learning how to provide the right balance between helping people in despair and getting a handle on the sale and distribution of illegal, stolen or illicitly prescribed drugs.

It was significant that Surgeon General Vivek Murthy came to Meharry Medical College in Nashville last June to deliver a message of the federal government's strategy on treatment of addiction.

"What we really need to do is ensure people living with addiction have access to treatment, that's true for pregnant women, that's true for all people," Murthy said during this visit.

It is significant that BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee, the state's largest insurer, has put its weight and its dollars via a $1.27 million grant behind a 7-year-old effort started by the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition called "Count It, Lock It, Drop It."

This effort sends a straightforward message: People with drug prescriptions should know how many pills they have, should keep them in a secure place and should properly dispose of pills they do not need.

Find more information on the initiative online at

The opioid epidemic is a complicated problem that will require time, money and persistence to solve.

It's a fight that Tennessee must stay committed to and must win.

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