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Surgeon General addresses opioid epidemic at Upper East Tennessee Health Summit

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Mar 7, 2018 at 7:18 PM

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams joined local officials, gubernatorial candidates and community members Wednesday at Johnson City’s Millennium Centre to discuss the health care issues facing the region today.

One of the main issues Adams focused on at the Upper East Tennessee Health Care Summit hosted by Healthy Tennessee and East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine was the opioid epidemic, which has continued to remain a point of focus for health care officials throughout the region.

“Of course, the main focus for the (Trump) administration and for me is the opioid epidemic sweeping our nation,” Adams said. “Addiction is a public health crisis. An estimated 2.1 million people in the United States struggle with opioid abuse disorder. That’s more than the number of people diagnosed with cancer each year.

“Unfortunately, Tennessee is no stranger to the opioid epidemic.”

At Niswonger Children’s Hospital alone, about 30 percent of infants in the neonatal intensive care unit are living with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is indicative of the scope of the regional epidemic.

Adams said one of the most effective ways for the region to tackle the problem is to view it primarily as a public health issue rather than a criminal problem, utilizing “non-traditional” partnerships between nonprofits, health care providers, law enforcement, faith-based organizations and other community organizations.

The issues of opioid abuse and drug addiction are also partly personal for Adams.

“Addiction touches everyone and every community, including my own. My little brother is in state prison in Maryland right now for stealing $200 to support his addiction habit. He received a 10-year sentence,” he said, adding that it takes about $300,000 on average to house an inmate for that duration.

“If we had intervened earlier and identified his mental health problems earlier — even after that, identifying his opioid problems, addiction problems and substance abuse problems and gave him an alternative choice between going to treatment and going to jail — we could’ve done that for less than $300,000,” he said. “That’s not counting the impact he could’ve had as a productive member of society as opposed to sitting in a jail cell. But if I — the surgeon general of the United States — couldn’t have changed his pathway alone, none of us can do it alone. None of us can do it alone without reaching out to non-traditional partners.”

Adams also advocates harm-reduction approaches to health problems such as the opioid crisis, much like the syringe exchange program he helped institute as Indiana state health commissioner to address the HIV outbreak that happened there as a result of intravenous drug abuse.

One controversial harm-reduction approach Adams supports in the context of the opioid crisis is increasing accessibility to naloxone, a drug that saves victims of opioid overdoses. He said it is important to “make sure everyone knows what naloxone is and is in a position to quickly administer it.”

Adams also emphasized the need to promote rehabilitation efforts. He said only 1 in 5 addicts receive adequate addiction treatment.

“Each day we’re losing more than 115 Americans to an opioid overdose. Let me put that in perspective for you — I’ve been up here talking for about 12 minutes, and a person dies every 12 minutes in this country due to an overdose,” he said.

“I would say we need to shift away from a punitive approach and go to a public health approach,” he added. “We need to make sure law enforcement is approaching the issue with a public health-informed response and that they are looking at options beyond just putting people in jail and rehabilitating people by giving them pathways to recovery.”

Healthy Tennessee President Manny Sethi expressed similar views on the opioid crisis and his belief in a plurality of approaches to it. In particular, he said Adams’ emphasis on community partnerships is an important part of what Healthy Tennessee is trying to do as part of their preventative and health education efforts in the state.

“Adams is in lockstep with us because of our idea of community partnerships, and that’s what he really believes in — getting people on the same page,” he said.

But Sethi said health care experts and those closely engaged with health issues ultimately need to lead the charge when it comes to health policies.

“I think we’ve got to have the people who are on the frontline of this problem to help develop policy. You can’t just have politicians who are sitting in Nashville or D.C. who don’t know about this stuff,” he said. “Those are the folks who live it day in and day out. They live it and they see it.”

Republican gubernatorial candidates Randy Boyd, Bill Lee and Democratic candidate Karl Dean also addressed health care concerns in the forum. Former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, Kingsport Mayor John Clark and Johnson City Mayor David Tomita also participated.

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