Holly Strom | Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle | Feb. 6, 2016 | Updated: Feb. 7, 2016 12:23 p.m. |
With New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary coming up Tuesday, you may be surprised to learn that the issue most concerning the Granite State’s voters isn’t jobs, national security or immigration. It’s drug abuse.
A prescription drug epidemic — mainly driven by the wide availability and abuse of opioid prescription drugs such as OxyContin — is ravaging New Hampshire. There were roughly 400 deaths from overdose in 2015 — double those from 2014. Here in California, Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties have the most opioid-related deaths. Roughly 125 Americans now die from drug overdoses every day.
What would the presidential candidates do to solve this crisis? Unfortunately, most of them have given little indication. I have some suggestions:
Require states to share information. Every state except Missouri has a drug monitoring program that tracks controlled substances sold within their borders. But the moment someone crosses a state line to get a prescription filled, they can drop off the radar. This makes it incredibly difficult for law enforcement and medical professionals to know what’s happening in their own neighborhoods. I’ve seen this firsthand in California — we desperately want to share information with our peers in Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, yet are unable to do so.
Propose creation of a national database to keep track of opioid use. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has funded and helped develop a secure system that conforms to the data standards put in place by the federal government for such interstate data sharing. It is in use in 34 states, although California is not one. By the end of 2016, about 40 states will either be connected to or working toward a connection to this system. The next president should propose that the remaining states participate, even as soon as 2020.
Increase funding for medical training programs. Pharmacists and other medical professionals are often given insufficient training when it comes to the dangers of prescription opioid abuse. As a result, many medical professionals unintentionally overprescribe opioids when another, less dangerous, substance will do. Prescriptions — and addiction rates — would start to drop.
To be clear: Any sort of nationally mandated training and prescribing guidelines would fail to account for all of a state’s or city’s specific needs. The federal government could step up funding for programs such SafeMedLA, which is run in my county of Los Angeles. An equally important part of this puzzle is the creation of training programs for those who have been in practice for many years — not just current medical and pharmacy school students.
We must spur a larger conversation on how to fight the prescription opioid abuse epidemic so that the presidential candidates take it seriously. So far, they have remained largely silent, even though this issue profoundly matters to millions of Americans.
Holly Strom, a licensed pharmacist, is a former president of the California Board of Pharmacy and the founder of Strom and Associates LLC, a health care consulting practice.