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Where District 61 Candidates Stand on Addressing Tennessee's Opioid Crisis

As Tennesseans have grappled with the opioid crisis, Williamson County residents haven't sat unaffected.

According to the latest data from the Tennessee Department of Health, 26 people in Williamson County died from a drug overdose in 2016. Of those who died, 19 suffered from an opioid overdose.

Prior to the August primary, The Tennessean will ask candidates questions on various issues that affect residents. Answers from candidates will run in alphabetical order.

Question: Tennessee continues to grapple with the effects of the nationwide opioid crisis. Williamson County filed a federal lawsuit against several drug manufacturers and distributors this year. If elected to office, what solutions would you contribute to help the state handle this issue?

Gino Bulso (R)

If elected, I would contribute an historical prospective in addressing today’s opioid crisis that draws upon the wisdom and experience gained from the past.

The opioid crisis we see today devastating families in Tennessee and across the country is not the first opioid crisis to afflict our community and our nation.

In the mid to late-19th century, opioid use rose dramatically, fueled by physicians’ unrestrained opioid prescriptions. During this first wave, physicians were largely responsible for iatrogenic addiction to opioids among patients. By 1900, one in 200 people were addicted in the United States. This nationwide crisis extended across socio-economic strata, and reached urban and rural areas.

History tells us that the current opioid crisis is best addressed through avoidance and education.

The medical and pharmaceutical communities must avoid unrestrained opioid prescriptions, patients must be educated as to the risks inherent in the use of opioids, and the Tennessee General Assembly must exercise the oversight necessary to ensure that such avoidance and education actually occur.

Rebecca Burke (R)

I believe that state officials should declare opioid use as a public health emergency, accelerating the investigation into multi-pronged solutions at the state and local level, including seeking federal funds designated to fight this public health crisis.

As a candidate, I have met with addicts and treatment professionals to gain a fuller understanding of the costs and challenges in overcoming this highly addictive group of pharmaceuticals.

As a former health care administrator in a physical rehabilitation clinic treating injured workers, I became keenly aware that injuries are quickly accompanied with abuse of alcohol and opioids. Long after physical injuries are rehabilitated, the individual cannot return to work and family life because of the impairment of substance abuse.

Any financial recovery from the state’s participation in lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of opioids should be directed to the state’s Medicaid and TennCare reserves for the oppressive cost of treatment that most often is paid for by those programs.

Those peddling highly addictive opioids and deadly alternatives such as fentanyl and carfentanil should be subjected to stiffer penalties that keeps these individuals out of society.

I would also recommend legislative action that coordinates Tennessee’s resources with that of other states seeking federal government “get tough” legislation aimed at the international community, which poorly polices drug pathways from Mexico for heroin and China as the origin of much of the deadly street fentanyl flooding our country.

Jeff Ford (R)

For those who think that the opioid crisis does not affect us here in Williamson County, I would suggest that you speak with Sheriff Jeff Long.

In meetings of the Williamson County Commission, he has described the problems that plague our citizens every day. That is one reason that I supported Williamson County suing the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and hide the addictive qualities of these dangerous drugs.

In order to attack this issue, we must first stop more Tennesseans from becoming addicted. While the Tennessee General Assembly made some good first steps in the last session, we can do more. The restrictions on more than three-day prescriptions is a great step. We can do more.

The second concentration would be on giving tools and resources to local law enforcement agencies that will enable them to stop the illegal flow of opioids into our communities.

The last area to help to combat this is through recovery programs. Those Tennesseans who are already addicted need our help. The $30 million that Gov. Haslam included in this year’s budget helps. I will advocate raising this amount significantly.

Bobby Hullett (R)

As a county commissioner, I voted in favor of the lawsuit. This is a state, local and federal issue.

One governing body cannot gain ground alone. Tennessee should lead in this battle, and to succeed, we must hold the manufacturers and distributors accountable, but we must also strengthen our laws at all levels and increase our education and awareness campaigns.

Until we, as a state and a nation, stop being reactive and become proactive against threats, we will never truly achieve our goals and all you as a voter will receive is an empty campaign promise.

Brandon Ogles (R)

We have had cause to deal with different forms of addictive substances throughout our history. The opioid problem did not happen quickly and solving it will take time.

We need collaboration with all stakeholders to fully understand the issue and to find the best possible solutions. Pharmaceuticals have an important role in medical treatment, but we have to make sure parameters are in place to protect patients, physicians and the public as a whole from dangers, especially in regard to drugs with addiction potential.

Rebecca Purington (D)

Williamson County was wise to join with many other counties and cities in this lawsuit. Our community has not been spared the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic. As we put greater restrictions on prescription opioids, we are seeing a rise in the use of heroin and fentanyl.

According to recent discussions with local law enforcement, Naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid overdose, is being administered three to four times a week.

In 2018, Williamson County has already exceeded the number of drug overdose deaths experienced in all of 2017.

Tackling the opioid epidemic in Tennessee will not be easy given the magnitude and complexity of the issue. Medicaid expansion would likely lessen the financial burden. It is critical that we educate patients regarding the risks of opioids, provide treatment and therapy for those who are addicted, reduce risk factors associated with drug misuse, and continue to crack down on those who are profiting from the over-prescription of narcotics.

We must do all of this while making sure that individuals with a legitimate need for effective pain medications are able to receive appropriate treatment.

Terrence Smith (R)

As a practicing physician, I must first admit that I am disheartened that some health care providers could not “police” themselves with regard to this issue. The simple fact is that it takes less time to write out a prescription for whatever a patient is asking for, than to launch into a detailed explanation as to why the desired drug is inappropriate or potentially harmful in the long run.

So, because health care providers and administrators failed to judiciously constrain their use of opioids, the practice of medicine has once again been transferred to legislators. HB1831 and SB2257 are touted as “guidelines."

They are not.

They have the weight of law and are mandates requiring that opioids be prescribed in a specific manner. In reviewing the laws, however, it appears that our legislators did their best in balancing patient needs with prescribing controls. It is hoped that these prudent limitations will decrease both addiction and overdose rates.

I do believe that the legislation put forward will provide a much more effective solution to the opioid crisis than suing the companies that make the drugs. This will accomplish nothing more than increasing the price and availability of such drugs for cancer patients and others with legitimate needs.

Regardless of the outcomes of any lawsuit, the only sure winners will be the lawyers involved — this much is guaranteed with absolute certainty.

Overall, a multifaceted public education program may provide the best solution to the opioid crisis. Providers and insurance carriers should promote and cover non-drug approaches to chronic pain management.

Patients should have realistic expectations and understand that their pain may never be instantly, completely, and permanently eliminated.

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