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Mixed Reactions to Governor's Plan to Tackle Opioid Epidemic

Gov. Bill Haslam's "Tennessee Together" plan is being praised for its multi-pronged approach to tackling the opioid epidemic, but prevention coalitions are questioning why they weren't included in the strategy.

Haslam announced the state plan Monday, which calls for $30 million to be allocated for three key areas of focus: prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition, said overall, she is pleased with the three-pronged approach.

"This is a very complex problem so, you’ve got to attack it from several different angles if you’re going to have an impact," Pershing said.

She said she was disappointed, though, by the lack of mention of prevention coalitions in the plan.

“Prevention coalitions really weren’t mentioned at all and I think we serve a very pivotal role, especially at the local level. So, that was very disappointing. We do a lot of work with very small amount of resources, so even a small amount of money would go a long way with a local anti-drug coalition," she said.

There are currently about 55 anti-drug coalitions in the state, according to Pershing. She'd like to see one in each of Tennessee's 95 counties, and said the "Tennessee Together" plan could have been an avenue for working toward that goal.

“I hope we can have further conversations with the state about this," she said.

Much of the funding the governor announced Monday goes to support programs that are already in place, but there are a few specifics that will require new legislation.

The first proposed legislation the plan calls for is further restriction on opioid prescribing.

New opioid prescriptions will be limited to a five-day supply with daily dosage limits. Exceptions to that limit would include people who are undoing palliative cancer treatment or in hospice.

The plan also calls for new legislation that expands treatment for opioid addicted people in state prison. It also gives incentives for those who successfully complete intensive substance use treatment programs while in prison.

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch praised the plan Monday, saying he was "highly pleased" with the details of the approach and the amount of funding the state is committing to the issue.

"The announcement of the funding, $30 million isn’t anything to sneeze at. It is a significant amount of money that is being allocated to address this very serious issue," Rausch said.

He said he was glad to see the emphasis on prevention and treatment in the plan, and said that helps his officers by decreasing the number of calls they're handling.

"If you keep people from ever making that step in the first place, I think that’s going to be primary as we go forward," he said.

Rausch said there needs to be an increase of "treatment on demand" that is available for people struggling with addiction in order to truly make a difference in the opioid epidemic.

"You tell an addict that has a substance abuse issue, right, that they have this brain disease, that they have this craving for a drug, you tell them to go home and to stay clean and stay clean until we can get you into a bed, right, that’s absolutely absurd," he said. "And to think that that’s the way that we have been medically handling this problem is egregious."

While Pershing and Rausch both praised the financial commitment the plan makes, Pershing said she's disappointed organizations like the Metro Drug Coalition won't see any additional funding from the plan.

Pershing said even a small amount of additional funding would help them educate more students in local schools.

“Right now, for example, we have one youth initiatives director who is working with our school system and she’s in there supplementing the health and wellness curriculum doing drug prevention education. Of course with one person, we're in the middle and high school but we can’t even cover all of our middle and high schools. So, you know, if we could add another position or two we could definitely get in the elementary level as well as being able to cover more of our middle and high school students," she said.

The plan also calls for updated laws on how the TBI classifies illicit drugs so they better track and penalize those who distribute opioids.

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