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Opinion | 3 Ways a Federal Bill Will Help Fight the Opioid Crisis

Here’s a true story that is hard to hear, and hard to forget: Becky Savage, a mother of four boys, wakes up one morning in June 2015, and finds one of her sons dead in his bedroom.

Then, she finds a second son dead in the basement. Two teenage boys, athletes and best friends, pronounced dead of an accidental overdose from mixing alcohol and some opioid pills together at a graduation party.

Here’s another: Earlier this month, I visited the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, where 10 of the unit’s 30 babies were suffering from drug withdrawal, called neonatal abstinence syndrome. The hospital opened a new, separate unit within their NICU last May to help care for all these infants.

And another: In Johnson City, I heard about Dustin Iverson, who, after serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Mississippi National Guard, was found dead at age 29 from an apparent overdose.

Across our nation, and across Tennessee – from Greeneville to Memphis and Jackson to Cookeville – nearly every community has stories to tell of the toll the opioid crisis has taken.

This crisis is not just about those suffering directly from an opioid addiction – it’s about their children, parents, grandparents and neighbors. It’s about our doctors and nurses, teachers, ministers, and law enforcement. This crisis is eroding the communities we hold dear.

► Read More: Tennessee Senate passes $37.5 billion budget, including more funds for teacher pay, school security

This crisis demands a response from the federal government that is urgent, bipartisan and effective. Yesterday, the Senate health committee I chair took the next step in providing that response.

The committee voted to approve the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 – legislation I introduced with Senator Patty Murray and a bipartisan group of senators – that is the result of more than six months of hearing from governors, state officials, families and other experts at seven committee hearings.

Our legislation includes 40 proposals to improve how six federal agencies and departments help states and communities fight the opioid crisis, including reducing inappropriate prescribing of opioids, stopping illegal drugs at the border, and accelerating research on non-addictive pain medicines.

First, reducing inappropriate prescribing of opioids: In January, I dropped by a meeting at the Tennessee Governor’s Residence in Nashville. The heads of all our state’s institutions involved in training doctors were planning how to discourage the over prescription of opioids. Governor Haslam told me that in our state of 6.6 million people, there were 7.6 million opioid prescriptions written in 2016.

This legislation encourages responsible prescribing by giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require drug manufacturers to package certain opioids for a set duration – an example would be “blister packs” for patients who may only need a three- or seven-day supply of opioids.

► Read More: Opinion | Here is how to head off the opioid problem at the source

Second, stopping illegal drugs at the border: At that same meeting in January, Governor Haslam said that even though Tennessee has actually reduced the amount of opioids prescribed, the number of overdose deaths continues to rise because of abuse of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid frequently sent from China.

This bill would improve FDA’s ability to find and seize illegal drugs, such as fentanyl, by upgrading their physical infrastructure at the border and ensuring FDA has more laboratory capacity, detection technology and testing equipment.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Photo: Submitted)

And third, accelerating research on non-addictive pain medicines: I see non-additive painkillers and other strategies to manage pain as really the “Holy Grail” in fighting the opioid crisis.

Our legislation would give the National Institutes of Health the flexibility to more quickly approve high impact, cutting-edge projects that address the opioid crisis, including finding a new, non-addictive painkiller.

I’m hopeful our legislation will soon be considered on the floor and signed into law this year, so that we can help our Tennessee communities– and the communities across our nation – begin to bring an end to the heartbreaking stories of the opioid crisis.

Lamar Alexander, R-Maryville, represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.

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