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'Ravaging Communities': McAuliffe Talks Opioid Epidemic at Abingdon Town Hall

ABINGDON, Va. — Gov. Terry McAuliffe visited Southwest Virginia on Monday to discuss the opioid epidemic, a problem he said is “ravaging communities” throughout the state.

McAuliffe spoke at a town hall meeting at the Community Center of Abingdon about the impact of the opioid epidemic in the region and his efforts to combat the problem. In 2016, about 1,100 Virginians died of overdoses from prescription medications, heroin or fentanyl.

“The opiate crisis is killing our friends, killing our neighbors, killing our loved ones and despite our best efforts it is only getting worse,” McAuliffe said.

Early projections for 2017 show that 1,400 could die, the governor said. When McAuliffe asked the crowd of several dozen how many knew someone who has dealt with addiction, hands went up across the room.

He was joined by Dr. Sarah Melton, a professor of pharmacy practice at the Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State University. She is the clinical pharmacist at Highpower, PC in Lebanon, Virginia, and the Johnson City Community Health Center in Tennessee.

Pills are the primary cause of overdose deaths in Southwest Virginia, McAuliffe said, which differs from other parts of the state, where heroin is the main concern.

On the prevention front, McAuliffe has taken steps to ebb the flow of pills in the public sphere. An initial prescription will only be provided for seven days at a time and after three months, McAuliffe said, a patient must undergo counseling and a risk assessment to verify that the pills are not being abused.

McAuliffe has also targeted “doctor shopping,” the process of hopping from doctor to doctor to obtain opioids. By 2020, a prescription monitoring program will be in place so that doctors can check online if a patient has already been prescribed medication.

“There are way too many doctors prescribing way too many pills here,” he said.

In 2014, McAuliffe created a task force on prescription drug and heroin abuse. Melton, who was on that committee, said efforts are being ramped up to educate future doctors, nurses and pharmacists about pain treatment and addiction.

“One of the reasons why doctors are not prescribing the way they should is because they were never taught in medical school about how to treat pain appropriately or about how to treat the disease of addiction,” Melton said.

Screening, assessment and treatment of opioid addiction were recently added to the state Medicaid program. McAuliffe, however, expressed his disappointment that the General Assembly did not vote to expand Medicaid in April. If it had, McAuliffe said, 23,000 more people in Southwest Virginia would be eligible.

“People are dying here, and we ought to be doing everything we can,” he said.

Another piece of the solution is getting naloxone into as many hands as possible, McAuliffe said. The medication can counteract the effects of an opioid overdose in seconds. Attendees at the town hall had the option to receive training to use naloxone. It was also being provided to anyone who wanted it.

McAuliffe stressed that community members can play an important role, too.

“If you hear of a doctor that’s out there over-prescribing drugs, report them to the Department of Health,” he said.

Melton encouraged citizens to join a community coalition, such as the Substance Abuse Taskforce in Rural Appalachia or the Appalachian Substance Abuse Coalition.

“We’re always looking for active members that are going to help us be the boots on the ground to fight this overdose epidemic,” she said.

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