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Tennessee Overdose Deaths Jump 12% in 2016, as Opioid crisis Rages

The number of Tennesseans who died from drug overdoses jumped 12 percent from 2015 to 2016, largely due to growing use of dangerous synthetic opioids.

There were at least 1,631 Tennesseans who died in 2016 — up from 1,451 in 2015, according to new figures from the Tennessee Department of Health. However, the number of deaths is likely higher due to inconsistencies in how counties investigate and report deaths.

Deaths from fentanyl, synthetic opioids, increased from 169 in 2015 to 294 in 2016, according to state data.

Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the health department, said that while the rate of increase is slower than the previous year, the deaths represent "a horrible increase, and as we feared, our data show illicit drugs."

Fentanyl is used medically for anesthesia or severe acute pain. It's so potent that it's a dangerous drug, said Dr. Chappy Sledge, chief medical officer of Cumberland Heights.

State overdose data sheds new light on opioid crisis

The potency of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, such as carfentanil, can vary by batch, making them hazardous to users.

“As we switch from prescription opioids to heroin and more potent products, people don’t really know the potency of what they are using,” said Sledge.

The public health crisis is at the center of policy debate among city, state and federal lawmakers.

Tennessee regulations and insurer policies have sought to reduce the number of painkiller prescriptions but illegal drug use has increased at the same time. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has funded awareness campaigns and prescription take-back efforts through its foundation as well as writing new guidelines for doctors — a move that other insurers have also made.

"These heartbreaking numbers show a continued need to address the crisis along both clinical and social fronts," said Mary Danielson, spokeswoman for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Yet, Sledge said demand for rehab at Cumberland Heights is steady.

Naloxone, a temporary antidote used to treat overdoses, "doesn't seem as readily available as I had hoped," Sledge said.

"If someone survives an overdose then they have a shot at recovery down the road,” said Sledge, adding he's sickened, but not surprised, by the new numbers.

The new data underscores the toll the epidemic is taking on families and communities. East Tennessee has been hardest hit by prescription abuse although heroin is becoming more prevalent in towns and cities across the state.

“The rise in opioid addiction and overdose deaths in our state affects countless Tennesseans,” said Centerstone Regional Vice President Ken Stewart. “Communities continue to suffer the consequences of this tragic epidemic. We are committed to offering support and treatment solutions that will help people begin to recover, across Tennessee and beyond.”

Even though the epidemic is getting national attention, access to care has not been expanded, leaving many people without options, said Dr. Nasser Hajaig, western division medical director for CleanSlate Centers, which is moving its headquarters to Nashville.

Despite addiction having a neurobiological basis, there is still a stigma that people with abuse disorders and their families confront, said Hajaig.

We need to send information out that this is not something they should be ashamed of and it is a disease we can treat," Hajaig said.

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