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Local health, state leaders deem opioid crisis declaration 'progress'

Zach Vance • Updated Oct 27, 2017 at 7:46 AM

State and local health leaders commended President Donald Trump’s decision Thursday to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, but details remained vague about the directive’s impact on opioid-ridden communities, like the Tri-Cities, where drug abuse has festered for the past decade.

“The opioid issue is huge and I applaud the president for putting the weight of the presidency behind it. Because that's what it's going to take for our country to get its collective arms around this problem,” Mountain States Health Alliance CEO Alan Levine said.

Levine’s health system is now directly involved with the treatment of opioid addiction in the Tri-Cities, partnering with East Tennessee State University to open the region’s first methadone-dispensing drug treatment program last month.

Dr. Robert Pack, director of ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, believes a greater emphasis will now be placed on policies related to increasing access to care, whether that’s the overdose reversal drug naloxone or medication-assisted treatment.

Effective for 90 days, Trump’s declaration allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to redirect federal resources, waive or modify certain Medicare requirements and adjust requirements for grants distributed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Just last month, SAMSHA was allocated $144.1 million to administer federal grants for preventing and treating opioid addiction.

Namely, it was specified Trump’s declaration will expand access to substance abuse treatment in rural areas through the use of telemedicine services.

Unlike a national disaster declaration, which automatically releases funding for the federal government to use in combatting a particular problem, Trump opted to use the Public Health Services Act, which governmental officials confided was a better choice to address a complex health issue like opioid addiction.

“(The public health emergency) does give the secretary some latitude with grants and basically a federal strategy behind the public health dollars and the public health resources. It begins a long process,” Levine said.

“It keeps (opioids) front and center strategically as the federal government does its budget, as they develop grant programs. A declaration is one thing, but the real statement of policy is your budget. Now, what I would encourage the president and Congress to do is follow up on this declaration by making it a budget priority.”

Typically public health emergencies are local in nature, but Levine served as Louisiana’s health secretary in 2009 when a public health emergency for the swine flu was issued across the country.

“If you look at the number of people that died from the pandemic flu and compare that to the number of people dying each year because of opioid addiction, this is easily threatening more lives than the flu pandemic did,” Levine said.

“What happened (in 2009 and 2010) was a very impressive response from the federal government all the way down to state and local governments. If we can replicate that with the opioid challenge, I think we can make progress.”

A June Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed opioid prescriptions in the four Northeast Tennessee counties easily topped the national average, and overdose deaths continued increasing. Statewide, 848 people died of opioid overdoses in 2015.

Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner was present at the White House for Trump’s announcement and called it a “landmark day in the history of a scourge that I have been working to turn around since 2004.”

“I am proud of the work we have done in Tennessee under Gov. (Bill) Haslam’s leadership. There is much left to do,” Dreyzehner said in a statement. “Today, we turned a symbolic corner as a nation, recognizing this crisis affects all of us. The road ahead will not be short, but we can get to the end together. Thousands of lives depend on it, lives we all care about.”

Haslam said Trump calling attention to the issue through the declaration will have an impact.

“Over the past several months, our departments have been working together to study this issue and to provide me with options for us to consider as we head into the next budget cycle and legislative session,” Haslam said “We will prioritize addressing the opioid crisis in our state and are working toward a comprehensive plan that we will bring forward soon.”

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