Seeking answers in the opioid battle

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wants all voices to be heard in the quest to combat the nation’s opioid crisis.

The congressman met with the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) on March 27 to discuss the issue and listen to reactions to proposed federal legislation related to the opioid crisis.

The public meeting, held at the community center at Land O’ Lakes Heritage Park, attracted dozens of people who are interested in the issue.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis recently met with the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP), to discuss and solicit feedback on federal bills related to the opioid crisis. The House Health Subcommittee has heard 26 bills as a starting point related to opioid legislation that will be rolled into one large bill to be passed out of the House by the end of May. (File)

It piggybacked off a similar ASAP meeting in August, where Bilirakis provided an update on federal efforts to combat opioid abuse.

So far, the House Health Subcommittee has heard 26 bills as a starting point related to opioid legislation that will be rolled into one large bill to be passed out of the House by the end of May.

The bipartisan bill, CARA 2.0 Act, builds on the original Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act by providing $4 billion in additional resources for opioid prevention and treatment.

The funding was earmarked as part of President Donald Trump’s $1.3 trillion long-term spending bill, which passed March 23.

Throughout the 90-minute session, ASAP members shared personal stories and presented ideas to help solve the opioid crisis.

Opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, more than any previous year on record, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An estimated 40 percent of those deaths involved a prescription opioid, the agency says.

Members of ASAP, including Beth Piecora, advocated for additional peer support specialist programs. In this type of program, people who have significant personal experience with struggles pertaining to mental health, psychological trauma or substance abuse provide support to people who are currently struggling with those types of issues.

Piecora, a representative for Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, said federal dollars are needed to train and employ an increased number of those peer specialists.

Peers often can be instrumental in leading someone to pursue treatment, Piecora said.

She also suggested background check screenings be eased when hiring such specialists. “Some folks that have that lived experience sometimes have those certain things on their record,” she explained.

Others mentioned Narcan — a life-saving emergency opioid treatment — should become more readily available for addicts and their families.

The medication is the first and only FDA-approved nasal form of naloxone, which helps blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing.

Besides enhancing distribution efforts, ASAP members said Narcan should be subsidized for consumers, particularly those uninsured. Without a prescription, the medication can cost more than $130.

One speaker even suggested requiring doctors to provide Narcan as part of prescribed pain medications.

While grant programs are available to receive free Narcan through nonprofits, barriers still remain in getting quick, easy access, ASAP coordinator Monica Rousseau said.

“You can access Narcan for free, but it usually involves a lot of paperwork…and it’s kind of obscure. It’s also very difficult to get it in a moment when you have people struggling,” she said.

Crisis needs to be attacked on many fronts
Meanwhile, Pasco Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Art Rowand inquired about creating a policy to allow law enforcement to place addicts into treatment, without arrests.

The law enforcement officer said such a measure could help eliminate the cycle of drug abuse, and cut down on overdoses and deaths.

“Basically, the only thing we have to take care of the situation…is to arrest them,” Rowand said.

Some ASAP members stressed that Bilirakis and other policymakers continue to address comprehensive addiction issues, including alcoholism.

“Opioid is now the new kind of thing, and everybody’s aware of it, but I don’t want to leave out treatment for alcoholism,” said Dena Lynch, who spoke on behalf of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“It goes hand in hand, and there’s a lot of people using drugs that also drink, so I think you can’t disregard that as far as treatments. A lot of people in all walks of life have alcohol problems, and it’s really easy to focus on opioids.”

Other suggestions included:

  • Additional measures to help juveniles with addiction treatment
  • More impactful opioid and drug education in schools for younger-aged children
  • New educational opportunities for parents of drug addicts
  • Additional ‘sober living’ houses that also are affordable
  • An increased number of child and adolescent psychiatrists
  • Improved access for psychological services and treatment for the LGBTQ community
  • Mandatory needle exchanges
  • Additional faith community nursing programs

Bilirakis said he wants to schedule a discussion next month with a handful of stakeholders, to continue to brainstorm about possible legislation related to fighting addiction.

Addressing the audience, the congressman said, “We can get your voice heard up there and really get these things into law, but we’ve got to find out what works.”

He continued: “You can throw all the money in the world at something, but if you don’t do it right and it’s not effective, then it doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Published April 11, 2018

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