Deck: While gripping the nation, the opioid epidemic holds a higher presence in Tennessee, making political candidates grapple with potential solutions.
Labeled as a national epidemic by news outlets, national health organizations, and governing bodies, the opioid crisis in the United States poses a clear threat to public health. While raising alarming national statistics for abuse, Tennessee’s own opioid abuse appears far worse than the national average.
Compared to the national average of 13.3 overdose deaths per 100,000 people, Tennessee saw 18.1 deaths in 2016, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA).
This dramatic difference may be due largely to Tennessee being the third highest prescriber of opioids in the nation, as deemed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the NIDA claims that there were more opioid prescriptions than Tennesseans in 2016.
Originally perceived to be non-addictive, opioids act as pain relievers and, if used improperly, can weaken breathing and heart-rate, resulting in death. Since many opioids are prescribed as pain relievers by trusted doctors, the population at risk for addiction may be viewed as inclusive.
Despite the lack of socioeconomic boundaries, NIDA cites poor, specifically nearby Appalachian, Americans, as most likely to succumb to addiction due to the psychological stressors of poverty and lack of access to proper healthcare.
Colliding with another policy issue, the relationship between opioids and inadequate healthcare, specifically Medicaid, reveals the healthcare debate to have a potentially increasing importance in the coming elections. In Tennessee, Democratic candidate for governor Karl Dean supports the expansion of Medicaid, stating at a recent opioid summit, “having access to Medicaid dollars is absolutely essential” in addressing addiction as a mental health issue.
His opponent, Republican Bill Lee, echoes the severity of the crisis, but, on his website, he emphasizes providing “law enforcement with tools and resources needed to make Tennessee a state that drug traffickers fear to enter.”
While drug trafficking also remains an issue in Tennessee, majority of the opioid overdose deaths in the state are due to drugs obtained legally through prescriptions, according to NIDA. In the current Senate race, Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen seeks to overturn the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which prevents the Drug Enforcement Association from holding suspicious opioid shipments from pharmaceutical companies.
This act was co-sponsored by his opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who now argues that the consequences of the bill were unforeseen and there should be direct limits on prescription painkillers.
Resting heavily upon government action and policy, the handling of the opioid crisis will be decided by those elected into office. That being said, one of the ways to get involved in halting the epidemic is to vote with discernment to candidates stances’ on healthcare, pharmaceutical companies, and opioids.