PHOTO: Earlier today, U.S. Senator Doug Jones held a conference call with rural news outlets regarding efforts to combat the opioid crisis. We asked him how the federal government can help local law enforcement deal with the issue. (Tyler Pruett | Southern Torch)
By Tyler Pruett, Managing Editor
WASHINGTON, D.C., — Earlier today, U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D - Birmingham) held a conference call with Alabama news outlets regarding efforts at the federal level to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic.
To begin the call, Senator Jones discussed bipartisan efforts in Washington to combat this crisis. He reported that yesterday that he attended a briefing at the White House on the issue.
"I really want to talk about one of the most serious problems we are facing in Alabama and across the country, and that has been the opioid crisis. Alabama has been, in some respects, at the very heart of this epidemic, with a 121 prescriptions per every 100 people. We have the highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country. Which means there is like 1.2 opioid prescriptions for every person in the State of Alabama."
"The fast growing problem of the opioid addiction has lead to awful consequences; and it has especially hit hard in our rural communities. In Alabama, the number of overdose deaths climbed 82 percent from 2006 - 20014. In 2016 alone, there were more than 740 Alabamians that died from overdoses."
"The CDC data shows that the majority of the drug overdose deaths are related to prescription opioids and heroin. For years community leaders have struggled to deal with this overwhelming crisis. Fortunately, some have seen success by working to limit overprescribing, to shut down pill mills, and halt prescription shopping."
"Others, that have expanded Medicaid, have also greatly expanded their ability to help folks with substance abuse disorders and their access to get the help they need to get their lives back on track.
"Low income Alabamians would benefit significantly from Medicaid expansion; something I've talked about for the last on a year now. And it will be paid for by bringing back tax dollars we already pay to Washington, D.C. to help our old people have access to vital healthcare."
"When I came to the Senate, I knew I wanted to work on this important issue: combatting the opioid crisis. I talked about it last year, I talked about it in the fall, and I've talked about it since I was sworn in on January 3rd. Our local leaders are ultimately going to have to do much of the heavy lifting on the opioid crisis, I want to be a strong partner at the federal level to make sure they have the tools and resources necessary."
This past Tuesday, I co-sponsored bipartisan legislation with (U.S.) Senators Lamar Alexander (R - Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D - Washington); two of the leaders of the Senate Health Committee. That bill is a comprehensive package composed of 40 different proposals that is the result of 7 bipartisan hearings over several months and feedback from the public."
The "Opioid Crisis Response Act," will authorize the department of labor to address the economic and workforce impact for communities affected by the opioid crisis. They will be able to do this through grants; targeted at workforce shortages among the substance abuse and mental health treatment work force."
It will also provide support for states to improve their prescription drug monitoring program. It will help make sure that folks aren't getting prescriptions from multiple doctors, and that doctors aren't prescribing more than necessary."
It will help increase access to mental health services in schools, community based settings, and substance abuse disorder services in underserved areas. And it will spur development and research in non-addictive painkillers."
"I'm also proud to say that I am a part of bipartisan legislation that I introduced with Sen. Tim Kaine (D - Virginia) and Senator Todd Young (R - Indiana), to integrate job training into addiction recovery programs. That is going to be incorporated in to the overall Opioid Bill that we will introduce this week.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with people from the White House and different agencies, and participate in a briefing on the White House's efforts in the Opioid Crisis. They have also started looking at a number of things; funding through various departments of the administration, whether it is the Department of Justice, Agriculture, or the Department of Human Services. Across the board this is a very important issue for administration, as well as for the congress.
Altogether, we know that none of this is a final solution, but I'm happy to be part of a comprehensive, truly bipartisan step to confront one of the worst public health crisis of our time."
Pruett: "Speaking from your experience as a U.S. Attorney and your current position as a U.S. Senator, are there measures that the Federal Government could take to assist local law enforcement with the ongoing opioid crisis? Such as stiffer sentencing for doctors who overwrite prescriptions or those selling the drugs in our communities?"
Jones: "I obviously think there are things that the Justice Department not only can do, but they are doing. The Justice Department has a lot of tools right now. Most of the federal sentences in the federal court are governed by sentencing guidelines. The guidelines for healthcare fraud and issues like this are already pretty significant."
"I think the issue is getting to them to make sure that they focus both on the doctors; as well as anyone else who is assisting in the overprescribing of medications. Not everything is a doctor overprescribing, some of it is fraudulently done. There is a lot of things that we need to tighten up in the system."
"I know that Attorney General Sessions has just recently named someone as the head of the Opioid Crisis Task Force. She was part of the briefing we were involved with yesterday. I think they are looking at this very strong on a local level. Working with the state force, I've met with folks there. They are going to be working with various folks to try to do as much of the prosecution that they can.
But let me quickly say, that while law enforcement is a very important part of this, we cannot simply just prosecute our way out of the opioid crisis. This is a much bigger issue. It involves education, it involves potentially using drug take back programs; all manner of things to try to get the public educated on the dangers of opioid use, as well as getting the healthcare industry to start seeking alternatives to opioid type pain reduction techniques."