With the backing of local sheriffs, mental health professionals and two mothers who lost their sons to the opioid epidemic, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan has introduced a seven-part bill to tackle the opioid epidemic from multiple angles.
"We've come a long way since shutting down pill mills and other things we've done, but there's a lot more we need to do," Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, said Monday at Centerstone, a mental health facility in Bradenton.
The bill, called Opioid Emergency Response Act, is a multifaceted, bipartisan approach that addresses mental health treatment, beefs up screening of packages through the U.S. Postal Service and calls for harsher sentences for convicted dealers.
Centerstone CEO Melissa Larkin-Skinner praised Buchanan's efforts, saying he is at the "forefront of the fight."
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She noted that the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50 was of drug overdose, and that 4,215 babies born in Florida were diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is when a newborn withdraws from drugs they are exposed to in the womb.
Buchanan has sponsored a bill within the larger bill called Alternatives to Opioids Prescribing Act, which would incentivize hospital emergency rooms to use high doses of Tylenol or Advil instead of low-dose opioids.
Manatee Memorial Hospital is already using this approach. Kevin DiLallo, CEO of Manatee Healthcare System, said their emergency room has implemented the Alternatives to Opioids method, which focuses on pain management methods that don't rely on opioids. Six months into using the method, the emergency room saw a 30 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions.
"I think this is where you can start," DiLallo said. "Start in the emergency rooms, reduce some of the opioid use and you can reduce some of that on the streets as well."
The other bills within the Opioid Emergency Response Act are:
▪ Opioids and STOP Pain Initiative Act (H.R. 4733), introduced by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., which would direct resources to the National Institutes of Health to research addiction, pain and opioid alternative treatments.
▪ Continue the awarding of grants under the 21st Century Cures Act to increase opportunities for prevention and treatment access.
▪ Mental Health Access Improvement Act (H.R. 3032), introduced by Rep. John Katko, R-NY, would allow new types of providers to join Medicare for senior treatment.
▪ SISTA Act (H.R. 2851), also introduced by Rep. Katko, to facilitate the outlawing of certain synthetic drugs and increase sentences for convicted drug dealers.
▪ STOP Act (S. 372), introduced by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would direct the U.S. Postal Service to require more stringent screening of packages to look out for fentanyl and carfentanil.
▪ Veteran Overmedication Prevention Act, introduced by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to study the link between prescription opioids and the high rate of veterans' suicides.
Cindy Bales, of Sarasota, and Ruth Lyerly, of Bradenton, who lost their sons, have been "a guiding light" for Buchanan, he said. When they met eight years ago, they showed him 200 empty prescription bottles, representing the amount of drugs dispensed in the area that day.
"Treatment has been long lacking for many, many years," Lyerly said. "Prevention has come a long way, but treatment has not."
Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells and Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight also support the approach. Although Manatee County had the highest rate of deaths in Florida related to fentanyl analogs in 2016, deaths have been declining. In the first three months of 2017, the sheriff's office responded to 262 overdoses and 35 deaths, whereas the same time in 2018 they addressed 68 overdoses and eight deaths.
"We have to save our community," Wells said. "My job is to eliminate the source. We have to work together to treat those that are struggling and the congressman has done that today."