Governor Phil Bryant hears from opioid task force

Published 10:25 am Thursday, August 3, 2017

By Larrison Campbell

Mississippi Today

Gov. Phil Bryant agrees with a set of recommendations that include increased funding to combat the opioid epidemic in Mississippi. But just how the state will pay for this amid declining revenues remains unclear.

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On Wednesday, the Governor’s Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force met with Bryant to review their first set of recommendations for combating opioid abuse in the state, a project more than six months in the making.

The task force made a total of 41 recommendations. In addition to increasing access to treatment, recommendations included stiffer penalties for drug dealers, increased training for providers and law enforcement and a statewide media campaign.

But some of these suggestions come with a hefty price tag. In a conversation with Mississippi Today after the meeting, Bryant said that he thinks the findings of the task force could compel the Legislature to set aside extra funds to combat the epidemic.

“We’re always concerned about additional funding, but one of the reasons we’re emphasizing the magnitude of this crisis is just for that. This is a disaster of such proportions that we are going to necessarily need additional funding. There are some recommendations in the report about how we go about looking at that. But I think the Legislature will be open to being able to support efforts that, once you know how to assume that command and control, there will be certainly an incentive (for) helping fund that necessity,” Bryant said.

Funding needed

Some members of the task force acknowledged the funding may be difficult to find. Declining state revenues have forced five mid-year budget cuts in two years, forcing agencies such as the Departments of Mental Health, Health and Forestry to lay off workers. The Department of Mental Health, which administers state-funded addiction treatment, is reducing its workforce by almost 10 percent in an attempt to close a $19 million budget gap this fiscal year.

“I’m sure everyone is doing all they can in light of all the financial problems that we have in the state, but we need more treatment dollars if we’re going to fight this,” said Larry Calvert, president of the Mississippi Board of Pharmacy and a task force member.

“I certainly am concerned (that the state might not have funding). It’s a difficult problem because there’s a lot of funding needs,” Calvert said.

Not all money has to come from the state. Earlier this year, the Department of Mental Health received a $4 million federal grant, 80 percent of which will go toward funding state treatment facilities, according to John Dowdy, director of the Bureau of Narcotics and chairman of the Task Force. Calvert said he would like to see other federal grants directed towards combating problems with opioids in Mississippi.

And not all recommendations come with a price tag, either. The recommendations were divided into three categories: changes for health care providers, for law enforcement and for education, prevention and treatment.

Cutting back on prescriptions

The first section of recommendations seeks to cut back on opioid prescriptions. Approximately 80 percent of heroin addictions began with an addiction to prescription opioids, according to Dowdy, and changing how health care providers prescribe these drugs is a crucial first step. In 2014, health care providers in Mississippi wrote 3.36 million prescriptions for opioids, which translates to 1.1 prescription for every resident in the state. This is the fifth highest opioid prescription rate of any state in the country.

Among the recommendations are limiting prescriptions for acute, non-cancer pain to seven days. Currently, the state has no limit. The task force also recommends limiting the dosage of certain opioids and requiring all health care providers to check the state’s prescription monitoring program every time a prescription for a Schedule 2 opioid or benzodiazepine is written. Schedule 2 drugs are considered to have a high potential for abuse and include oxycodone, codeine and fentanyl.

“This problem is so multifaceted. Every day seems like I hear of a new issue,” Bryant said.

The second set of recommendations include changes to law enforcement and prosecution. One of these is enhanced sentencing for people charged with selling drugs, particularly if the drugs sold have resulted in someone’s death. In that case, the task force recommends changing the sentence from five to 20-40 years to life in prison. The task force, however, does not recommend stiffer penalties for users.

“The dealer is the person we have been trying to get to,” Bryant said. “And there’s a big difference between a user and a dealer.”

The third set of recommendations concern education, prevention and treatment. This runs the gamut from multimedia campaigns and town hall meetings to increase the availability of naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of opioid overdose, and access to state-funded drug treatment centers.

“What I believe is that we have set forth a very comprehensive, strategic plan for us to move forward and combat this epidemic on multiple fronts,” Dowdy said.

On Wednesday, Bryant also granted the task force permission to continue to meet periodically over the next year, to monitor progress and come up with additional recommendations.