Editorial: Stay the course on opioid fight

The Detroit News

If you don’t know someone battling an addiction to prescription opioid drugs or heroin, it’s likely you will in the near future. Michigan ranks 18th in the nation for all overdose deaths, and in the Detroit area alone the numbers of abuse and overdose deaths continue to rise.

Several recent high-profile events throughout the state have highlighted the work being done to help addicts recover and help those who’ve overdosed stay alive. An influx of federal money and attention from state leaders are also hopeful indications the epidemic can be slowed in Michigan and throughout the country.

But much more remains to be done. As we anxiously await official data from 2016, the anecdotal evidence (and trend lines) indicate the opioid crisis will likely get worse before it gets better.

Key to eliminating this disease is targeting the distribution of prescription painkillers. From 1999 to 2014, Michigan saw a four-fold increase in unintentional fatal drug poisonings, and the state was ranked 10th in the nation in per capita prescribing rates of opioid pain relievers in 2012.

Michigan updated the Michigan Automated Prescription System earlier this spring so that doctors and other prescribers can quickly access a patient’s history before prescribing drugs to them.

The new system allow prescribers to see which schedule 2-5 substances have been prescribed to patients in just a few seconds. Previously it took up to 10 minutes to find that information. This was a key priority of the state’s opioid task force, headed up by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and kudos to them for making it operational quickly.

Another effort that holds promise is drug take-back days. The most recent was April 29, and in one day, Michigan residents gave back more than 20,000 pounds of unused prescription drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

That’s part of the most successful haul to date nationally, and indicates these days could produce even bigger results in the future.

It’s also a program that has real, tangible results, and gives people a physical outlet. Because the source of this particular opioid and heroin drug epidemic is pharmaceutical painkillers, getting those prescriptions back is a big step in stemming not just the supply, but the potential interest in the drugs.

One of the problems is that these centers are often near police stations, which might scare away people who want to give the drugs back but fear criminal or legal backlash. Establishing more “neutral zones” for anyone to dispose of drugs could encourage even more returns. Of course, these areas also need to be safe enough to protect those dropping off.

For example, despite the high number of drugs returned, Wayne County still returned the fewest of Metro Detroit’s three biggest counties, despite having the largest population. Oakland County has one-third less residents than Wayne, but gave back more than double the number of pills. Macomb County has less than half of Wayne’s population, but residents there gave up about 1.6 times the number of pills.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and legislators are also now pushing a bill package that would primarily focus on restrictions on prescribers and new requirements for them to disclose risks of abuse and addiction.

The legislation covers enhanced education and protections for pharmacists who withhold the drugs. But the most important provisions would require prescribers to have a bona-fide physician-patent relationship with a patient before scheduling certain substances. They would also require prescribing limits for opioids — a 30-day supply for chronic pain sufferers and a 7-day supply for acute pain sufferers.

Research around this epidemic indicates the addiction happens quickly, and easily, and much of it stems from prescriptions that were originally to treat pain. Now doctors must be accountable and responsible to prescribe these drugs after other options have been exhausted.

Too many Michiganians have already been lost to the opioid epidemic. It must remain a priority of lawmakers, nonprofits, doctors, law enforcement and the mental health community to work together to end opioid abuse.