An Appalachian Regional Summit on Prescription Drug Abuse (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
As numbers associated with prescription drug abuse continue to soar nationwide, communities in and around the Appalachian region — including Washington County — have been feeling the impacts of prescription drug abuse for quite a while.
In an effort to combat the problem, a two-day event — An Appalachian Regional Summit on Prescription Drug Abuse — started Wednesday at East Tennessee State University. The summit, the first of its kind in Tennessee, was put together by seven United States attorneys who are members of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (AHIDTA) from northern and southern West Virginia, eastern and western Kentucky, eastern and middle Tennessee and western Virginia.
Individual speakers and panels — made up of various law enforcement, academia, health care, public health and others gathered in the D.P. Culp University Center Auditorium — discussed prescription abuse, issues seen in the regional communities and potential solutions to the problem.
One of the presenters was Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.
“Prescription drug abuse is absolutely the biggest crime problem, the biggest public health problem in my district,” Goodwin said. “This is a very big issue for all of our districts. If you took a pin and put it in Johnson City and drew a 500-mile radius around it, you would be right in the middle of a prescription drug crisis.”
He said the purpose of the summit is to “talk about the various issues involved with prescription drug abuse and to try to come up with some tangible solutions. Everybody by now knows how big an issue it is, how big an issue it is from a criminal justice standpoint, from a public health standpoint, from an economic standpoint, but solving it is ... another thing entirely.”
While there are many people, groups and organizations working to combat prescription drug abuse, Goodwin said it’s imperative that everyone know what others involved are doing to contribute.
“We need to be talking with each other about exactly what we’ve been doing and how we should move forward in focusing our resources more effectively,” he said. “We want to bring together folks, talk about ideas for solving these problems and eventually issue a report outlining what those solutions may be. It is not just a single state problem, it’s a regional problem, it’s a national problem. It just so happen that the Appalachian region is disproportionately affected.”
Goodwin said so far at the summit, participants have heard from speakers discussing Kentucky drug-monitoring programs and their effectiveness, as well as a professor from West Virginia who discussed the economic costs associated with prescription drug abuse. During the lunch break in the Culp Center ballroom, Goodwin also showed a video his district produced about the various problems associated with prescription drug abuse.
Dr. Robert Pack, who was a summit presenter earlier Wednesday, said the Appalachian area, particularly Washington and Sullivan counties, have seen an increase of prescription drug abuse.
“We’re fifth in Washington County and sixth in Sullivan County in terms of the number of babies that are born addicted to opiates (or neonatal abstinence syndrome),” Pack said.
Pack, who is director of a National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded program seeking to reduce prescription drug abuse in Appalachia through interprofessional communication between health care providers and patients, said he is also part of a working group at ETSU that meets monthly to discuss evidence-based solutions to the drug problem.
Pack said he spoke Wednesday about prescription abuse in Appalachia and that his colleague, Dr. Nicholas Hagemeier, discussed what their team has been doing to address the drug problem.
“My hope for this summit is that it will stimulate conversation, that people will form relationships,” he said. “Evidence-based action is the only way that we’re going to have any kind of impact. It’s not enough to just do what you think might work. You need to do what has been proven to work. Hopefully folks will get engaged with each other to begin to solve the problem.”
Dr. Sarah Melton, associate professor of pharmacy practice at ETSU’s Gatton College of Pharmacy and faculty advisor for the school’s educational program, Generation Rx, was also scheduled to speak at Wednesday’s summit on a variety of topics, which included reducing the demand for opiates.
“It’s (the summit) great for networking because it’s bringing everybody together from the surrounding regions, the states,” Melton said. “We’ve got excellent panels.”
Melton said it will be important for the U.S. Attorneys to summarize the different topics discussed at the summit and take them back to their states to talk with key stakeholders and enact.
The summit will continue today at 8 a.m. at ETSU.