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Keep up the opioid attack

Johnson City Press • Oct 1, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Tennessee and Virginia hospitals recently lobbed another grenade at the addiction and overdose industry.

Notice we didn’t say “pharmaceutical,” “prescription drug” or “opioid” industry. Those benign descriptors are no longer adequate.

When properly prescribed and monitored, opioids can be of major benefit for patients suffering from serious injuries or the effects of life-threatening illnesses.

But the cost of abuse and addiction on the rest of humanity outweighs that benefit tenfold. Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in Tennessee. From 2012-17, the state saw record numbers of deaths from opioid use each year, with 1,186 in 2016 and 1,268 in 2017.

In a civil action filed last week in Greene County Circuit Court, Ballad Health facilities were among more than 30 hospitals suing Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and more than 40 other companies and individuals who manufacture, distribute and sell prescription opioids. The hospitals allege that for decades, the defendants have been making false assurances about addiction risks and using deceptive marketing tactics to persuade health care providers to over-prescribe.

Hospitals are just the latest entrants into the court battles over opioids, as district attorneys across the country, including those locally, have also sued. Meanwhile, state and federal lawmakers have passed or proposed legislation aimed at curbing the national crisis.

What’s the hospitals’ stake in all this? Financial. As our partners at the Kingsport Times News reported, analysts estimate healthcare systems incurred more than $215.7 billion in costs related to the opioid crisis from 2001 to 2017, largely attributable to overdose-related emergency department visits.

The hospitals are right to join the fight. Every dollar they spend coping with this unnecessary, man-made epidemic contributes to the spiraling costs of U.S. health care. You are paying for this disaster left and right.

Until the purveyors of addiction and overdose feel the impact of this war deep in their own pocketbooks, this health catastrophe will continue. Attacking them from all sides is both necessary and urgent.

That includes the education, prevention and addiction treatment efforts we’ve seen from Ballad’s partnership with East Tennessee State University, as well as new laws to make such efforts easier.

There are signs the assault is working — minimally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that overdose deaths dropped nationally from 70,237 in 2017 to 68,557 in 2018. That’s still 68,557 too many.

That says to us that access to opioids remains largely unfettered. Heavy government regulation is not the answer to every problem in America, but in this case, it’s a must.

Pro-business lawmakers have a hard time cutting the purse strings with big donors, and that includes Big Pharma. That’s why we have yet to see a comprehensive federal crackdown on opioid manufacturers and prescribers.

Piecemeal legislation won’t do the trick. Congress must take definitive action to strictly control the flow of opioids from the source, through our borders and at the doctor’s office.

Such regulation should not tie the hands of medical providers where legitimate need exists, but manufacturers and many — not all — prescribers have yet to demonstrate the necessary restraint to head off stringent oversight.

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