Others’ opinion: Policymakers need to act as opioid epidemic intensifies

Published 8:05 am Friday, March 9, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Inaction is not an option. That’s the clear message that two alarming new reports about the nation’s opioid drug abuse epidemic sent state and federal policymakers on Tuesday.

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Opioids include prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and street drugs such as heroin. The widely used prescription pills are easy to get hooked on, and medical experts fear that when legitimate sources run dry, people turn to illicit options. Sadly, the consequences can be fatal. “Opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths in 2016, and opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which declared opioid abuse a public health emergency in 2017.

Minnesota legislators and federal officials are currently weighing measures to stem this terrible tide. The double-barreled data released on Tuesday ought to shift them into high gear.

Particularly chilling is the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite growing awareness of the risks, the CDC concluded that the abuse is a growing problem. “Opioid overdoses increased for men and women, all age groups and all regions,” the Atlanta, Ga.-based agency said in a statement. Officials dubbed the results “a wake-up call to the fast-moving opioid overdose epidemic.”

To get the most current numbers, the CDC analyzed data from emergency departments, where people suspected of overdosing usually go for care. Information came from 52 jurisdictions in 45 states, including Minnesota, and covered more than 60 percent of U.S. emergency room visits.

Overall, there was a 30 percent increase in suspected opioid overdose ER visits from July 2016 to September 2017. Of the five regions defined by the CDC, the Midwest had the largest increase in suspected opioid overdose visits — a jaw-dropping 70 percent. Next closest was the western U.S., with 40.3 percent.

The second startling study on opioids released Tuesday was led by a Minnesota physician — Dr. Erin Krebs of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. Krebs’ work, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, shed light on whether opioids’ benefits outweigh their risks. When it comes to chronic joint pain, the study suggests no. Alternatives such as ibuprofen, which don’t come with addiction risk, appear to be work just as well, and may even work better in the long run. The study will also fuel concerns that the opioid marketing misled doctors and patients on risks and benefits.

Both reports underscore the value of recommendations made by a Minnesota opioid task force in late 2017. The group focused on educating medical providers to rein in long-term prescriptions. It also called for a “penny a pill” tax to help fund treatment, prevention and law enforcement efforts in the state.

Gov. Mark Dayton hewed to these recommendations last month when he released his plan to fight opioid abuse. Not surprisingly, the “penny a pill” approach has run into drug lobby opposition. Some key Republicans have sympathized, saying that the industry already pays a lot in taxes.

Like any proposal, Dayton’s plan will need fine-tuning as it goes forward. There are fair questions about whether the “penny a pill” might actually tax some pain treatments much more than that.