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Capitalizing on opioid addiction

Jennie Young, Community Voices Columnist • Oct 6, 2018 at 12:00 AM

A recent Press article gives a depressing opioid-crisis report, with related deaths increasing nationally and our area among the worst.

No real surprise when elected leadership is morally debased and under siege, as the past inevitably catches up, and searches for every possible means of distraction. Not enough attention for a raging opioid crisis.

Congress seems far too compromised in its dance with the influence-peddling pharmaceutical industry to do much more than tinker around the edges. We’ll need a changing of the guard for that, as for many serious issues (like protecting our elections). One service we could do ourselves is by making sure Marsha Blackburn’s out-front record on misguided legislation and lobby money is known and becomes a career ender.

Our district congressman, Phil Roe, seems about as capable of discussing widespread opioid addiction as anyone who can read of it on-line.

He may think we’re soothed by recent congressional action, and by off-the-mark Trump proposals which push for harsher punishment, even the death penalty. Not for corporate white-collar criminals, mind you, more likely street level stuff. Though much good can be found in what Congress has done, and in some of the Trump proposals, they don’t begin to measure up to what now amounts to endemic failure. A parsimonious and inadequate approach compares unforgivably with apparent eagerness to spend lavishly on the likes of the Trumpwall.

Dr. Marty Olsen, the Democrat opponent to replace Roe in Congress, has exactly the experience and ability to help us as few others could. He is an ETSU professor and OBGYN Program Director, which you might think sounds above the fray.

No, Dr. Olsen is also a practicing physician. He currently treats addicted pregnant women, giving the earliest care for addicted newborns whose symptoms he works to reduce before birth. He has been the closest, and sometimes only, counselor for women damaged by drug addiction, with their newborn who also suffer the consequences.

He has the satisfaction of concerted and determined work for changing lives. Lives newly dedicated to the difficult task of remaining drug free. Also he’s traveled many times to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan to develop and teach maternal safety courses. Who could better provide real-world perspective so conspicuously lacking in the Republican-managed Congress?

At a campaign event Dr. Olsen said that now the majority of addicted newborns in his practice are addicted to suboxone, a drug used to wean people off opioids, less harmful but still addictive. That points to significant criminality stemming from lax treatment oversight.

Tennessee passed legislation in 2015 to restrict prescription levels, intervening again in 2017 because abuse wasn’t abating. All non-residential substitution-based treatment centers for opiate addiction must be licensed by the Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, finally giving the department powers for rooting out bad actors. Doctors have gotten training for dispensing the medications, but not all have done it altruistically. It’s disheartening that, in 2015, three out of the top ten prescribers nationally were in Tennessee. With some legislators’ questionable financial ties to the treatment-center business, and heavy industry lobbying, the legislature will be proven to have acted wisely only if the follow-through shows some teeth.

Opioid manufactures early on understood how ridiculously lucrative their products could be and took advantage, flooding America, including rural, with their easily abused wares. As did some unscrupulous distributors. We’ve seen Marsha Blackburn (on “Sixty Minutes”) shepherding through congressional action to protect profit interests from “government overreach.” But there’s more. Now comes capitalizing the cure. Problems often stay with us while substantial profit can be made from the remedy.

Consider this. In spite of hundreds of current lawsuits and a fine of $600 million for deliberately misleading the public and regulators, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of Oxycontin, now also owns the largest producer of off-patent generic opioid brands, and has just patented a new drug to wean addicts off opioids. They have the original drugs, the generics, and the so-called rehab all sewed up. Profits of $35 billion-and-growing gives them leverage to fight regulation, especially with complicit congresspersons. They also hope to beat the regulatory curve by rapidly seeking new victims overseas.

The 5/20/18 episode of Last Week Tonight, on Drug Rehabilitation Clinics, lacerates the pernicious preying on treatment needs of addicts. So poorly regulated, nearly anyone with means or backing can devise “treatments” (often total rip-offs), establish centers, and falsely advertise. The currently configured Congress seems oblivious to this latest expression of rogue capitalism. Their apparent motto: When profits can be made, go for it. Why restrict polluters? Let Betsy DeVos again enable for-profit higher education to defraud students. Turn the VA over to profit-seekers. A significant sector of the Republican congress have long been watching for such opportunities. Attorney General Jeff Session will tend to emphasize street-level penalties and border control while both he and Congress gloss over domestic capitalizing and profiteering. That is, if we don’t reconfigure Congress in November.

Phil Roe may feel tidily ensconced in a job he thinks suits him just fine. We would be far better served by Dr. Marty Olsen. Check him out yourself at Olsen for Congress. Obviously, I’m impressed.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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