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Editorial: Push to find antidote for opioid overdoses may be succeeding
Renewed efforts by governments, nonprofits may be putting a dent in addiction crisis
01102018 OPIOIDS

Some community problems rage on without a solution or a measurable way to determine if anything is working. But with the raging opioid epidemic, there may be clear signs the tide is turning in the right direction.

The sudden and shocking rise in addiction to painkiller narcotics seemed to swoop in overnight before most knew it was a national health crisis. The number of overdoses reported by Northeast Georgia Health System rose from 275 to nearly 700 between 2015 and 2016, while the number of overdose deaths in the state spiked as well to more than 1,300 in 2015.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports opioids involved in 42,249 overdose deaths in 2016. The cost of the epidemic is estimated to be nearly $78.5 billion a year in health care, treatment and criminal justice.

But once awareness hit home, efforts to stem it seem to be having some effect. The health system now reports the number of opioid treatment cases total 189 through June, on pace for a marked drop from last year’s total of 573. And that was down more than 100 from the previous year.

That awareness is the first step, but needs to be followed by action. And on several fronts, progress is being made.

Friday, the U.S. House passed bipartisan legislation in a 393-8 vote to tackle the crisis on different front. The measure now heads to the Senate. The bill would promote drug price transparency and regulate the manufacture of pricey biotech drugs and their cheaper generic equivalents, among other changes. Other recent efforts by government agencies have addressed limiting production of the drugs entirely to slow their distribution and abuse.

The state legislature also took notice last year and advocated $4 million statewide for rehabilitation efforts, likely just an early down payment of a longer term investment.

Some $250,000 of that has been allocated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disorders to a new local facility, Jeffrey Dallas Gay Jr. Recovery Center. The center, operating out of the Center Point building in Gainesville, isn’t just for addiction treatment but recovery “in mind, body and spirit.” That is in line with acknowledging that addiction goes beyond the physical and reaches into all aspects of the addict’s life.

Dallas Gay, a local advocate for addiction treatment, said his late grandson Jeffrey Gay could have benefited from programs today that are showing success in steering addicts away from relapses into abuse. The younger Gay died six years ago from an overdose, just as the crisis began to mount.

“I really believe if Jeffrey had had this type of organization available to him at that time, that he would most likely still be with us today,” Dallas Gay said.

But even with more resources dedicated to the effort, it’s an uphill climb. Relapses after rehab efforts still run high, 72 to 88 percent according to the Journal of Addiction, so a one-time trip to such a center seldom is enough to turn around wasted lives.

The cost goes well beyond dollars and cents. Those who turn to addiction can pull their family and friends into the same dark hole, and create loss production time on the job and more costs for court and legal procedures.

The insidious nature of painkiller addictions is part of the danger. Many originally turn to the drug not for a high or a thrill but because of legitimate health problems and a narcotic prescription. A routine knee injury, for instance, could lead to opioid use under a doctor’s care that can blossom into abuse. This is why health professionals are weighing in as well by taking a hard look at when and how they administer such drugs and suggesting alternative pain-relief options.

State agencies aim to limit “pill mill” operations by physicians who freely write prescriptions for dangerous drugs that not only can hook more patients, but puts more of the drugs into public circulation, where theft and abuse are more likely. Another remedy is to remove unused pills from circulation and potential abuse by offering drop-off boxes and other disposal methods.

One key initiative by the health system created a peer support program that allows recovered addicts to counsel those still trying to beat the drug. NGHS government affairs executive director Deb Bailey credits the program with helping more than 1,000 people in the year since it was started.

And as with other forms of addiction, incarceration seldom leads to a cure. That’s why the Drug Courts in Hall and Dawson counties, a model now duplicated elsewhere in the state, has succeeded in steering abusers into treatment instead of jail.

At a UGA seminar on opioid abuse Tuesday, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who presides over Hall’s Drug Court, cited a study by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government that shows accountability court graduates each had a $22,129 positive impact to the state’s fiscal health in 2017. Each contributes because they are clean, working and paying taxes, not taking up prison space and resources better allocated to violent, antisocial offenders.

It will take this multi-pronged approach, and a more robust commitment from governments and nonprofits to keep the overdose numbers headed in the right direction. Success is not guaranteed until use of the drugs is more rare and more safe only for those who need it.

It’s too late for Jeffrey Gay and thousands of others, but fending off those demons for generations to come is a vital effort and top priority.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community member Brent Hoffman.