Speaker Harwell at ETSU opioid task force forum: This issue is too critical to ignore

Tony Casey • Mar 20, 2017 at 5:40 PM

Nearly everyone in East Tennessee has a personal story to tell about opioid addiction.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and Mountain States Health Alliance CEO Alan Levine were among those at a state task force forum on East Tennessee State University’s campus Monday afternoon who spoke about how opioid addiction and prescription drug use has personally touched their lives.

Hill shared some of the feelings he experienced while visiting the neonatal intensive care unit at Johnson City Medical Center, seeing the effects on the babies born with an addiction to drugs due to their mothers’ own addictions.

Levine’s anecdote touched closer to home, as he mentioned his daughter’s addiction, which necessitated treatment in Atlanta.

And as gripping as their experiences were, members of the state House of Representatives task force on opioid and prescription drug abuse pointed out that because of the extent of the problem, there are few people in the Northeast Tennessee region who haven’t been touched by the epidemic.

Many of those stories, along with solutions and ideas, were shared during the dual event, which also featured the members of ETSU’s Academic Health Sciences Center and the university’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment. These entities and their staff are leading the statewide charge to solve the massive public health crisis caused by drug dependency.

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, Johnson City Commissioner Jenny Brock and other medical and public health academics from the campus community and beyond attended the forum.

Dr. Rob Pack, director of the university’s center, wants to tackle the problem with coordinated efforts. Many of the ideas posed to fight the problem stem from a 190-person working group of which Pack is a member. He calls it a “fertile ground for new projects.” These ideas center around prevention, research and treatment and come from community, academic and medical stakeholders who have a passion and dedication to fighting drug abuse.

But it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be a quick fix, Pack said. In working with the communities that have been hit the hardest by drug abuse, the working group has found a lot of different strategies that have potential. Many of these communities reported increased crime and less access to a drug-free workforce, which affects local economies.

“There’s no one solution to this,” he said. “There are a lot of very good existing solutions that we need to bring together in a coordinated fashion and at scale. Our vision is that our kids won’t have to deal with this in the same way we have, and our grandchildren won’t either.”

Levine complimented the way ETSU and MSHA have come together to face the mission, with one of MSHA’s components being the development of a nonprofit residential treatment facility in the Tri-Cities.

“I don’t think there’s a single partnership like this in the country, where an academic institution partnered with a clinical institution and said, ‘we’re going to bring these services to the community in a way that makes it as accessible as possible for the whole region. We’re going to bring the whole breadth of services and we’re going to try to learn from what we do with these patients,’ ” he said.

“The patients as well will have responsibilities. We’re certainly not going to provide medicated-assisted therapy unless the patient wants to be treated and wants to get away from the addiction managing their lives,” Levine said.

This kind of can-do attitude impressed Hill, who had the last word of the forum.

“ ... And to see once again, ETSU step up, and once again, Mountain States to step up, to take on this horrible, horrible problem that we have, as your state representative, I’m so appreciative of both organizations for doing this,” he said.


Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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