Seated side-by-side at a college they played integral roles in creating, former Gov. Phil Bredesen and former East Tennessee State University President Paul Stanton shook hands, shared a few laughs and reminisced about their efforts more than a decade ago that led to the development of the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, a private college that resides within a state institution.
The college was created to address a shortage of regional pharmacists, and in the years since, it has graduated more than 700 students, said Dr. Debbie Byrd, dean of the college.
However, Tuesday’s reunion revolved around a more somber subject: How to solve the scourge of opioid addiction ravaging communities across Tennessee.
As one of the leading candidates to replace the U.S. Senate seat of Bob Corker, Bredesen was more interested in learning about ETSU’s efforts to combat opioid addiction, specifically its Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment.
“It was incredibly gratifying to me that the school that Dr. Stanton and I kind of really helped get going has become such a leader, and even a national leader,” Bredesen said.
“(Opioid addiction) is a huge problem for our state, and I think some of the very best work in the country is being done here at ETSU on this crisis. This is a part of the state where this is particularly acute. I wanted to come here and learn about this from the experts. You know, I’m really glad that Tennessee has something of this quality.”
During the roundtable discussion, Bredesen was meticulous in his questioning, refusing to accept jargonistic answers while digging for layman explanations.
At one point, Bredesen said “pretend I’m governor again” before asking what is something that could be done immediately that provides the biggest return on investment.
“I was asking for things that you can do immediately as opposed to taking two generations to come into effect. I think there were some good ideas there. This whole idea of making better use of employee-assistance programs is certainly in that category; the suggestions about ways in which you might better educate doctors about what’s appropriate in terms of prescriptions of these opioids. That’s a ‘Day 1’ kind of opportunity,” Bredesen said.
While some of the answers varied, one that appeared to stick with Bredesen was implementing more employee-assistance programs, because a coworker is typically one of the first to notice if someone at risk is on the verge of becoming addicted to painkillers and getting that person the appropriate help.
“I think treatment is always the best. It’s less expensive and has far less human cost, obviously. I think there are things I’ve learned here we can do in terms of working with doctors to cut down the number and size of prescriptions,” Bredesen said.
Although he didn’t mention her by name, Bredesen did take a slight dig at likely Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, for legislation she cosponsored that allegedly stripped the DEA of its ability to freeze suspicious shipments of opioids.
“I think, there are these huge shipments of opioids that are coming around. I think the way in which Congress defanged the DEA in terms of their ability to do this stuff, I guess it was a couple years ago, it needs to be fixed. Congress has got an opioid problem, and the first step to recovery is recognizing you’ve got (a problem),” the former Tennessee governor said.
Before the bill’s passage in 2016, according to The Tennessean, the DEA had been able to halt drug distributors from sending millions of opioids to doctors and pharmacies who law enforcement thought were feeding people addicted to opioids.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Blackburn said she cosponsored the bill in a sincere effort to make sure people who legitimately needed prescription drugs could get them, while at the same time cracking down on illicit opioid use. She has since said the law had unintended consequences and should be “addressed immediately.”