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National Opioid Epidemic Emergency Declaration will Save Lives

The opioid epidemic is a national emergency that requires special attention and greater focus and resources to fight it.

President Donald Trump's declaration of a public health emergency is welcome, needed and essential to save lives.

Drug overdoses are the No. 1 killer of Americans: 142 people are dying in the U.S. every day. Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the nation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 33,000 people died from an overdose and 20,000 were dying from their addiction in 2015, according to the most recent CDC data.

There are 22 drug overdose deaths for every 100,000 Tennesseans, and 6,036 overdose deaths have been recorded over a five-year period through 2015 in the state. The number has grown annually, and experts say there may be more than official reports state.

Although Trump on Tuesday initially declined to declare a public health emergency, he wisely reconsidered on Thursday.

"The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I'm saying officially right now it is an emergency," he said. "It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis."

That is encouraging and hopefully he will set aside the law-and-order approach he initially touted because it simply does not work.

The USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee has learned through reporting, research and by hosting public forums on the opioid epidemic in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville over the past year that health, community and law enforcement officials believe an education and treatment approach is superior.

Congress affirmed this when it passed and President Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) last summer and the 21st Century CURES Act in December.

The tragic death of Max H Barry — the son of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry — of an overdose from a combination of drugs, including two opioids, made this epidemic so very personal to the community.

Barry has courageously dealt with her grief by talking about her son’s death, his time in rehab and the need for parents to speak with their children about drugs. She backed escalating the federal government’s response.

The White House has proposed a budget that would invest $1.3 billion in the CARA and CURES Acts and $27.8 billion in prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

Declaring the national emergency allows states to receive waivers from rules and regulations, use Medicaid dollars to expand treatment and strengthen local efforts.

State and local officials have increased their efforts.

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell appointed an opioid task force.

Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Mufreesboro, are drafting legislation for the 2018 legislative session that would target the illegal production and distribution of opioids.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office of Eastern Tennessee has created an Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit — one of 94 funded nationwide — to focus exclusively on the epidemic.

Barry said Metro Nashville police officers are carrying Narcan, the brand name for naxolone, an overdose antidote.

The nonpartisan Nashville-based research center The Sycamore Institute has started a three-part series documenting what Tennessee is doing and offering recommendations for how the state can address the crisis.

Among Sycamore’s takeaways are the need to create a broad behavioral health-focused approach that works on prevention and treatment. A major barrier for people, though, is the cost of treatment.

Now that Trump has declared a national public health emergency, the White House should turn its attention to treatment and education as the primary strategy for combating the opioid epidemic.

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