Earlier this year, T&D Staff Writer Dionne Gleaton profiled the opioid crisis in an eye-opening three-part series focusing on the extent of the problem, its direct impact on lives and what can be done.
Gleaton reported on the numbers:
• The U.S. Centers for Disease and Control’s latest Vital Signs shows opioid prescriptions continue to be written at a high rate, with the amount of opioids prescribed per person standing three times higher in 2015 than in 1999.
• The report indicates that while the amount of opioids prescribed in the United States peaked in 2010 and then decreased each year through 2015, the volume of the potentially addictive medications prescribed is still about three times higher than in 1999, when the problem with opioid addiction was in its infancy.
• The CDC has reported that prescription painkillers were responsible for roughly half of the nation’s 33,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2015.
Gleaton reported that focus on stemming the tide of prescriptions for pain-killers is essential.
“I would consider that opioids are overprescribed in general. What has helped in the recent past are the guidelines that have come out from the CDC and the DEA in terms of their recommendations for how to use opioids and having the providers be more aware of their prescribing habits through just that educational process,” said Dr. Monnie Singleton of Singleton Health Center in Orangeburg.
“I think that has helped us to sort of see a slight decrease in the number of prescriptions that are written, but old habits are hard to break. There are lots of physicians who’ve had patients on opioids for long periods of time and it’s hard to get them off of opioids,” Singleton said.
Gleaton reported on what a recovering addict has to say about the nightmare of opioid addiction.
“It’s a rough life. It’s a full-time job being an addict. There’s not a moment you don’t chase a pill. I mean if you don’t got it, you can’t move, you can’t function. You barely can sleep, cold sweats. I mean, it’s horrible. It’s horrible knowing that your life is based around a pill, that you can’t get out the bed, you can’t go to work, you can’t do nothing without that fix.”
Gleaton reported that addiction experts believe the problem has to be approached as a medical one.
“There is not a silver bullet, but I think that the United States government needs to step up to the plate and do more to treating it more kindly and participate in finding ways to treat it more effectively,” Singleton said. “Incarceration doesn’t do a thing. … What they need to do is really embrace the fact that opioid addiction is a medical condition.”
And Gleaton reported that the state government is aware that it must play a key role in addressing the problem.
Toward that end, Gov. Henry McMaster this past week put the full force of his office into finding solutions.
Calling the opioid abuse a “silent hurricane going on in our state,” McMaster said opioid overdoses caused 616 deaths in the state in 2016, nearly double the state's 366 homicides and 331 drunken driving deaths in the same period.
As reported by The Associated Press, the governor announced he is using executive orders to limit opioid prescriptions under two state programs. He directed state health officials to limit initial opioid prescriptions to five days for post-operation pain and other acute needs for Medicaid recipients in the state system. Patients would have to make a request if they need more.
The governor said the state employee benefits system will put similar limitations on its health plans, and he also asked the legislature to consider making such limits state law for all residents.
McMaster declared a statewide public health emergency that will allow authorities to more easily coordinate emergency management, health care and law enforcement resources. And he's convening an opioid emergency response team including law enforcement officials, health providers and state regulators.
The governor’s actions won praise from the South Carolina Medical Association, whose cooperation is essential.
The SCMA said in a statement: “The governor’s actions recognize the need for professional health care providers to have the ability to care for their patients’ needs, but also the very real dangers of excessive opioid use in the health care field. The SCMA thanks Governor McMaster for striking that very appropriate balance and so clearly recognizing the importance of doctors having the ability to make the best decisions for their patients.”
McMaster said a “collaborative approach is the only thing that will work.” As the state’s chief executive, he has put the crisis at the top of the priority list and can take essential steps to bring together parties in just such an effort.