Weekly Columns

Prescription drug abuse is a nationwide epidemic that’s hitting close to home. In Arkansas, the sale of opioids is 25 percent higher than the national average. Arkansas Act 820 signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier this month aims to change that statistic by requiring practitioners to check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) before prescribing opioids.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls this state-run electronic tracking system one of the “most promising state-level interventions” for addressing prescription opioid abuse. The law strengthens Arkansas’s six-year-old PDMP.

Other states that have implemented mandatory drug monitoring programs have seen a sharp decline in prescription drug-related deaths. I am hopeful our state will experience similar results. This is a great step forward in our fight to combat prescription drug addiction and it opens the door to improving care to our veterans. 

Veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than non-veterans. The threat our veterans face is two-fold. Untreated chronic pain can increase risks of suicide, but poorly managed opioid treatment can also be fatal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) practitioners are required to follow state law where they practice, so unless a state requires using PDMP, monitoring a veteran’s prescription history is voluntary. That needs to change. Practitioners at federal agencies like the VA should be obligated to check this database when prescribing medication.

I’ve addressed this issue with VA Secretary David Shulkin and I’m hopeful that we can work together to create a commonsense plan that allows all health care providers access to PDMP so they have the opportunity to advocate for appropriate medications that are right for our veterans.

In March, President Donald Trump tapped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead an opioid task force to focus on drug addiction, prevention and treatment. This builds on the commitment from Congress to capitalize on the efforts, best practices and the input of law enforcement, doctors, drug treatment advocates and patients on the path to recovery that began with the passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) last year.

Congress followed-up with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which includes a provision that authorizes the opioid crisis grant program. Arkansas was awarded $3.9 million in grant funding last week to help combat opioid addiction in our state.

Efforts to fight prescription drug abuse in Arkansas have been underway for years. In 2010, Arkansas launched a statewide effort to break the cycle of addiction by collecting unneeded and unused prescription medications. Across the state, Arkansas Take Back is decreasing the availability of unnecessary prescription drugs by properly disposing of expired and unneeded medication. 

There are more than 130 permanent drop-off sites across the state and many law enforcement agencies host temporary drop-off sites bi-annually. The next Take Back event is Saturday, April 29.

Drug take-back programs are important to breaking the cycle of addiction. We’ve had great leadership from the governor, state legislators and law enforcement officials who see the scope of prescription drug abuse. I’m confident that these efforts coupled with the state’s new law to monitor patients’ history of prescription drugs will save lives.