Guest Columnists

Engaging in the battle against opioid abuse

A tragic epidemic is sweeping across the country, tearing apart families, devastating our communities, and causing unnecessary loss of precious life — opioid abuse.

Sadly, many Iowans have witnessed the destruction caused by addiction and overdose related to the abuse of prescription pain medication, which studies show, may eventually lead to heroin use.

In 2014, approximately 52,000 Iowans needed treatment for illegal drug use but failed to receive it; this includes 7,000 who were between just 12-17 years old. Opioid-related emergency department visits in Iowa have tripled in less than a decade. And, across the state, calls for help related to exposure to pain medication tops the list of Iowa’s Poison Control Center in Sioux City.

Nationally, drug overdose deaths have exceeded car crashes as the number one cause of injury death in the country, with approximately two people dying from a drug overdose every hour.

We can and must do better for folks here in Iowa, and across the country.

While, unfortunately, no legislation can heal the very real loss already experienced by the family, friends, and neighbors of those who have fallen victim to addiction and overdoses in our state, we can do more to ensure that Iowans have access to treatment opportunities and community-based support programs to combat this epidemic. No one should live in fear that a loved one may become addicted to heroin after using prescription pain medications.

Recently, the United States Senate passed a much-needed, bipartisan bill called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). I was proud to join Senator Chuck Grassley, who helped move the legislation through the Senate, in supporting this initiative to equip local law enforcement, health care stakeholders, and other community organizations with the tools they need to engage in the battle against opioid abuse.

Importantly, CARA promotes education and prevention of opioid abuse in our communities. It also provides opportunities to train first responders in using drugs designed to help reverse an opioid overdose. The bill also authorized the expansion of “take back” or disposal sites for unwanted prescription medications. This is important, as studies show that unused prescription drugs kept in the home are ripe for abuse — oftentimes by teenagers.

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Through my conversations with folks in Iowa about opioid abuse, it has become clear that while pharmacies may want to participate in the federal prescription drug take back program, regulatory barriers make this a significant challenge.

Based on feedback from Iowa pharmacists, I am working on a request to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a thorough review of the program and report to Congress with recommendations to address the barriers to participation that local pharmacies face. These recommendations will help us to find appropriate ways to maximize participation in the program and ensure that this important service to the community is widely available.

No one should lose a parent, a child, a spouse, or a friend to opioid abuse. While there still is much work to be done, I am pleased to see folks come together, across party lines, to take an important step in combating this terrible problem. I urge my House colleagues and President Barack Obama to act swiftly to ensure CARA becomes law.

l U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Red Oak) serves on four Senate committees: Armed Services; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Comments; (319) 365-4504; (202) 224-3254

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