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Prescription drug abuse fight needs funds, leadership

The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:40 PM

Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to combat prescription drug abuse focuses on reducing the amount of medication prescribed in the state while increasing the resources for intervention and treatment. 

The approach is solid -- intervention and treatment are more cost-effective than incarceration in the long run. But there will be added up-front costs, and the state was hit hard this year by an unexpected revenue shortfall. 

Haslam and Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Douglas Varney announced the plan. 

The plan outlines the breadth and depth of Tennessee’s prescription drug problem. There are 4.85 million adults in Tennessee, and the state estimates 221,000 of them -- 4.56 percent -- have used prescription pain relievers in the past year for non-medical reasons. About 69,000 are addicts who require treatment, while the rest could benefit from intervention programs before it is too late. Opioid addicts are more likely to be married, employed and have greater than 12 years of education than those addicted to other drugs.

The governor’s plan, called Prescription for Success, contains seven goals to address prescription drug abuse: decrease the number of abusers; decrease the number of overdoses; decrease the amount of controlled substances dispensed; increase access to drug disposal outlets; increase access to and the quality of early intervention, treatment and recovery services; improve interagency collaboration; and improve collaboration with other states. 

Haslam’s action plan is long on ambition, but there are added costs. To reduce the number of people using prescription opioids by 20 percent, for example, the plan calls for funding more local coalitions that fight drug abuse and expanding a statewide media campaign. Intervention, treatment and recovery services will need an infusion of cash to meet the governor’s goals of increasing the number of people receiving and completing treatment by 20 percent by 2018. The plan also calls for better funding for programs serving addicted mothers whose babies have been born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. 

Missing from the plan is a cost estimate for these initiatives, though one figure given hints at the amount of support that is needed: To provide state-funded treatment to prescription drug abusers who live below the poverty line would cost nearly $28 million. 

Finding the money for treatment and intervention likely will be a struggle. This year $1.7 million that was to go toward a residential drug court treatment program was cut because of the state’s revenue shortage. 

The plan shows the administration has good intentions about coming up with a solution that could reverse the course of the state’s prescription drug problem. Real commitment, however, will have to come in the form of dollars in next year’s budget proposal and in persuading a parsimonious Legislature that prevention and treatment are wise investments. 

Tennessee can curb prescription drug abuse, but it will take political will, adequate financing and leadership from Nashville.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel

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