Amid the national debate over health insurance, an ongoing medical crisis is exacting a high cost in both money spent and lives lost.
Overdose deaths from opioid addiction have increased steadily, 59,000 nationwide last year and 1,302 in Georgia in 2015. Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville handled nearly 700 cases last year, more than double the previous year. And it will take a multipronged approach from leaders in government, law enforcement, medicine and nonprofits to begin rolling back high overdose numbers through awareness and treatment.
Drug Free Coalition of Hall County
Address: 711 Green St., Gainesville
Phone: 770-534-1080 x277
In many cases, patients are prescribed strong pain drugs that can lead to addiction. In others, drug use that once began with youths abusing alcohol or marijuana now finds opioids to be a first choice. Data shows the number of teenagers who abuse prescription drugs up 25 percent from 2009-2014, more so than for booze and pot; about 20 percent are starting with heroin.
Just as complex as the roots of addiction is how to approach the crisis, which involves health professionals, law enforcement and government agencies. All are affected by a problem that costs some $78.5 billion nationwide, a quarter of that borne by Medicaid, Medicare and publicly sponsored treatment programs.
Tuesday night, the Partnership for a Drug Free Hall held a forum as part of its Not My Family Series, titled “Pain Pills and Heroin are Killing our Families.” Attendees heard from experts on the scope of the problem and those who have faced it first hand.
Among those was Avery Nix, a former North Hall High football star who took his first pill at age 15, leading to years of abuse, addiction, attempted recovery and backslides. He’s three years clean now and serves as a substance abuse counselor, sharing his story to help steer others off that destructive path. He shows that unlike drugs like methamphetamine that seem to affect people mostly from low-income backgrounds, opioid abuse crosses all demographic lines.
How did this happen? It begins with a society becoming increasingly overmedicated, drugs offered for every affliction, large and small, and stronger meds to ease pain. The U.S. consumes some 99 percent of the hydrocodone used worldwide, according to the National Academy of Medicine. Nearly 250 million prescriptions were written in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s easy to see how even a small percentage of those can lead to an epidemic of addiction.
The nature of addiction, as addressed by Dr. Susan Blank at Tuesday’s gathering, is largely genetic, many succumbing not because they’re weak but predisposed to seek a drug’s effects. And that often starts with a prescription gone wrong.
Dallas Gay, an organizer in the Partnership, urges government to provide funding for treatment options to reach more people and coordinate efforts at the federal level and across state lines. He also wants health professionals to cut the number of opioid prescriptions by seeking alternative pain management methods.
For law enforcement, cracking down on illegal trafficking is key, particularly the sale of deadly substitute drugs like Fentanyl. Last summer in middle Georgia, several people died after taking synthetic drugs disguised as Percocet.
Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office agents now assist local agencies investigating overdose deaths in Northeast Georgia to find illegal sources and cut off the supply.
Another law enforcement priority is ensuring first responders are able to apply the opioid antidote Naloxone, which can prevent overdoses when there are only minutes to spare between life and death. Gainesville City Council last year approved purchase of 82 Naloxone kits, made legal and accessible by a state law named for Gay’s grandson, Jeffrey Dallas Gay Jr., who died of an overdose in 2012. All cities and counties should have such a supply on hand.
All this may seem a bit like closing the barn door after the horse is out. But acknowledging a problem long hushed up and ignored is the first step. If such efforts can keep someone like Avery Nix or Jeffrey Dallas Gay from falling into addiction, it is worth the effort.
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