A crisis is coming to Alabama, but you aren’t hearing much about it

August 24, 2017

Rep. Craig Ford

Our state government is no stranger to crises. We’ve had multiple budget crises, Medicaid crises and, most recently, a crisis related to our prison system.

But there is another growing crisis that hasn’t gotten the media attention these other issues have; It’s a crisis that could have a devastating impact on Alabama’s families, our economy and the taxpayers.

I’m talking about the opioid crisis.

Based on the news coverage, you may think that the opioid crisis is mostly in the Rust Belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But opioids are a major problem in Alabama, and are becoming a bigger problem each day.

Let’s start with what opioids are and why you should care about them.

Opioids are drugs that block pain and slow your breathing. They can be illegal drugs like heroin, or prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Oxycotin and fentanyl. Four out of five heroin users started out on prescription painkillers before moving to heroin because heroin is cheaper and typically more potent.

Alabama has more opioid prescriptions per capita than any other state. And of the 736 Alabamians who died from drug overdoses in 2015, 282 of them (38 percent) were related to opioids.

Opioids don’t just affect the drug users. Obviously, their families are affected. There are increasing numbers of children accidentally overdosing on their parents’ opioids or finding their parents dead from an overdose.

But opioids also affect you. Federal, state and local governments have spent hundreds-of-billions of your tax dollars trying to address overdoses, substance abuse and addiction. Those costs include treatment programs, costs associated with arresting and prosecuting drug offenders, and child and family assistance costs.

Overdose reversal drugs alone have costs local governments so much that some cities have proposed limiting the number of times they will resuscitate someone who has overdosed.

The costs of substance abuse and addiction are also costing private employers an additional $81 billion each year – money that could otherwise be going to jobs and pay raises.

The opioid crisis has particularly impacted the manufacturing and construction industries (both crucial to Alabama’s economy), where manual labor and the high-risk nature of the jobs can lead to a higher rate of workplace injuries, which, in turn, leads to higher rates of opioids being prescribed and abused.

And more and more, I’m hearing from employers who say they can’t fill jobs because they can’t find enough people who can pass a drug test. So the opioid crisis is already in Alabama, and will likely get worse before it gets better.

What, then, can we do about it?

Gov. Ivey was wise to bring back the Opioid Addiction Council to investigate this crisis, and Attorney General Steve Marshall is an excellent choice to co-chair that council. But I would like to make a few suggestions for the council’s consideration.

First, we need to look at Project Lazarus. Project Lazarus is a North Carolina-based non-profit organization that has produced a public health model that has had dramatic success with lowering the local overdose mortality rate and providing training and technical assistance to communities and clinicians addressing prescription medication issues.

Second, we need to work with healthcare providers and health insurers to set goals for reducing opioid use and identifying potential misuse by analyzing pharmacy and insurance claims. One health insurance company, Cigna, has been a leader on these reforms, reducing their customers’ use of opioids by 12 percent in just 12 months (their goal is a 25 percent reduction by 2019). We need to look at what they are doing and try to imitate it here in Alabama.

A third suggestion would be to dedicate one percent of the tax revenue collected from the sale of prescription opioids to drug addiction programs. Yes, our budget is already stressed to the max and rearranging funding would mean taking it away from somewhere else. But this small reallocation could achieve big results.

Opioids aren’t just a problem for people in the Rust Belt. Alabama leads the way in prescription opioids per capita, and we can’t solve this problem by arresting everyone who suffers from this addiction. It is a problem that affects all of us, and could affect anyone who ever takes a prescription pain killer. Kicking the can further down the road is simply not an option. I applaud Gov. Ivey for bringing back this council, and encourage the council members to seriously look at these options I have suggested to see what might work best for Alabama.

Rep. Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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