Americans consume more opioids than any other country in the world. In 2015, the quantity of opioids prescribed in the United States was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks.
Georgia, unfortunately, is no stranger to the malicious effects of the epidemic. In Georgia alone, from June 2016 to May 2017, the total number of opioid doses prescribed to patients surpassed 541 million. To put that in perspective, that is approximately 54 doses for every man, woman and child in our state. Sadly, 982 Georgians lost their lives due to opioid-related overdoses in 2016, making opioids responsible for approximately 69 percent of drug overdose deaths in Georgia. The consequences of opioid abuse and over-prescription are devastating every community, every age group, every demographic and countless families in our state.
In November, we celebrated Veterans Day to honor the millions of Americans who put their lives aside to protect our freedom. Unfortunately, too many of our brave veterans are now dependent on opioids to address chronic pain as a result of injuries sustained in combat. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of veterans addicted to opioids rose 55 percent to roughly 68,000 individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In another harrowing statistic, our nation’s veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses from prescription drugs as civilians.
While our veterans’ military service may have concluded, our duty as a country to support and honor our veterans continues, and we must care for our veterans and empower them in their lives and careers. That means recognizing and addressing the challenges they are facing, including opioid addiction.
Through our roles as a United States Senator and Georgia’s Attorney General, we have made it a priority to dig deep into this issue by collaborating with colleagues in the public sector and leaders in the nonprofit and private sectors. Most importantly, we have heard firsthand from Georgia citizens who have experienced the loss of a loved one to overdose. We are committed to making sure that the care and support that our veterans earned, fought for and sacrificed for, are available to them and to all Georgians.
President Trump has rightfully designated the opioid addiction crisis a national health emergency, and we will continue to find ways to help win this battle and hold those who had a hand in creating this problem accountable.
While well-intentioned, we sometimes make the mistake of only viewing this national crisis through our own particular lens. Those viewpoints can be focused on prevention, rehabilitation, legislation, law enforcement, workforce, or treatment just to name a few. To win this battle, however, we must establish new lines of communication among all stakeholders.
After all, it is only through these types of partnerships that we have successfully been able to:
- Hold the VA accountable for over-prescribing;
- Pass meaningful legislation providing quality pain management for veterans;
- Coordinate care across federal agencies, establish new labeling requirements for opioids and establish a task force on pain management;
- Direct the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to implement opioid and heroin abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts;
- Ensure that prescribers, drug manufacturers, distributors, and others who are responsible for the oversupply of opioids are held accountable;
- Create a successful statewide Drug Take Back campaign for safe disposal of unused, expired prescription drugs;
- Urge pharmacy benefit management services to implement opioid mitigation programs;
- Invite stakeholders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to participate in a statewide Opioid Task Force to close gaps in our collective response;
- Start a dialogue with manufacturers, insurance companies and distributors about the root of the epidemic and steps forward in solving it; and
- Advocate for increased safeguards to prevent opioid abuse among Medicare and Medicaid providers and beneficiaries.
In Georgia, we have a wide array of experts, organizations, law enforcement, and businesses that are seeking to tackle this problem and that can all accomplish great results if they work together.
When it comes to helping protect veterans and Georgians, we are interested in working with anyone who will come to the table until there are no more tears, no more heartache and no more deaths as a result of this public health emergency.
Johnny Isakson is the senior U.S. senator from Georgia. He is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Chris Carr is Georgia’s Attorney General. He is a member of the National Association of Attorneys General’s Substance Abuse Committee and recently created a Statewide Opioid Task Force to strengthen Georgia’s response to this epidemic.