The ongoing opioid crisis that is plaguing the nation effects every corner of the country. The devastating effects of this national emergency is especially being felt in Utah. Statistics show Utah has the 7th highest drug overdose rate in the country, with 6 Utahans dying weekly of opioid overdoses. Additionally, 80 percent of heroin users in Utah abused prescription painkillers. To address this epidemic, Sen. Mike Lee held an opioid summit where thousands of students statewide were in attendance.
Held last month in Salt Lake City, Lee’s annual Utah Solutions Summit also brought together law enforcement, celebrities, and recovering addicts. The overwhelming message from the opioid summit is that Utahans from all walks of life need to work together to stop the current opioid epidemic. Senator Lee stated the following during the summit:
“Separate and apart from the fact that we’ve got people who are dying, you still have people who are addicted – who are losing days, weeks, months, years in some cases, decades of their lives.”
A State Hard Hit By The Opioid Crisis
As previously stated, Utah has been hit hard by prescription opioid abuse—and especially in rural areas such as Carbon County. The county is the epicenter of both prescription opioid and illegal drug overdoses. With monies received from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development, the town of Price received $150,000 for a detox and sober living facility and $46,000 to help get patients to access to treatment services. The county also received $80,000 to buy ambulance equipment to respond to the increase in drug overdoses.
The county has also instituted the CARE Coalition. A non-profit organization, the CARE Coalition is comprised of community leaders including law enforcement, human services agencies, clergy, prosecutors, health care providers, as well as volunteers within communities. The group reaches out to schoolchildren, jail inmates, and community members to enhance existing prevention, education, treatment, and support efforts.
Along with other statewide initiatives, legislators, law enforcement and treatment professionals hope to curb an opioid epidemic that is out of control in Utah. Last year, 360 Utahans died as a result of opioid drug overdoses. With the drastic increase in deaths over the past couple of years attributed to the opioid fentanyl, the need for intervention is even more critical.
For many who attended the opioid summit, they came away with a deeper appreciation of the dangers of prescription opioids and the struggles associated with addiction. Education and prevention measures are certainly important in curbing the opioid epidemic, but it is only a small portion of a more comprehensive plan. For some, the opioid summit fell short—and Senator Lee’s past actions are seen as a source of those missed opportunities.
This past September, Senator Lee was the only Senator to vote against the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. The Act helped make drug treatment more accessible to those in need and included a grant program for opioid recovery centers. Additionally, the ACT allowed for the expansion of the naloxone program and expanded access to addiction treatment for those with Medicare and Medicaid among other provisions
In a press release, Senator Lee explained why he voted against the Act:
“There are some very good elements in this opioid response bill, including strengthening U.S. Customs and Border Protection authority to discover and destroy packages containing illegal controlled substances. Unfortunately, the bill also includes dozens of new grant programs with little accountability for how the dollars will be spent and minimal measurement or analysis on their effectiveness. Good intentions are not enough. In the face of a crisis such as this, we cannot afford to waste precious funds on programs which likely won’t work.
What we ought to do is focus our efforts on the state and local level – where we can best tailor our solutions and effectively reach people succumbing to the grip of the opioid crisis. American lives depend upon it.”
According to an article from the Salt Lake Tribune, Lee was one of two senators who voted against a 2016 bill to expand the resources available to both doctors and law enforcement to combat opioid overdoses and addiction. These measures included access to the drug Naloxone as well as improving drug treatment for those in jail or prison.
What The Utah Opioid Summit Means For Legislation and Action Going Forward
The annual opioid summit does help spread awareness about the dangers of opioid abuse. While there is a powerful take-home message, there does seem to be some disconnect in regards to whom should lead action towards solving the ongoing opioid epidemic. In Senator Lee’s opinion, the onus of responsibility should rest on the states and not the federal government.
While Lee’s line of reasoning is understandable, that reasoning can undermine progress. The role of senators and state governments is to work together to solve problems. In the case of the opioid epidemic that is plaguing the country, arguing principles and hesitation in implementing programs will result in more lives lost.
In the case of Utah, the programs that are in place are working to help curb the epidemic. The number of opioid deaths in the state fell from 449 in 2016 to 360 in 2017. This decrease shows that local, state and federal government bodies are working together to help curb the epidemic. Holding an annual opioid summit is a great tool to help spread awareness, but without meaningful action, the opioid epidemic affecting Utah—and the rest of the country—will cause more deaths.
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