By Alex Soderstrom
This shocking statistic is indicative of the battle Georgia currently finds itself in: a fight against a wave of addiction that has gripped most of the country. Drug abuse is rampant in the state, fueled primarily by the use of opioids such as prescription painkillers and heroin. Unfortunately, the state is largely battling these addictive substances the wrong way, using piecemeal strategies to combat a problem that demands large-scale reform of the medical industry.
In recent years, as headway has been made against cocaine and other drugs present in the inner city of Atlanta, the state’s suburban and rural areas have seen a resurgence in the use of opioids. These pockets of increased drug activity are one of the reasons Georgia’s number of overdose deaths jumped by 10 percent between 2013 and 2014. One such region is the north Atlanta metro area denoted as “The Triangle,” a sector that includes northern Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties and has seen an influx in heroin use. An investigation by 11 Alive News shows drug related deaths have spike by nearly 4,000 percent in these counties since 2010 — there were 224 such deaths in 2015.
In North Georgia, addiction to prescribed opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin has crippled families and destroyed lives. 10 of the state’s 67 opioid addiction clinics are located in the region, despite only six percent of the population living there.
The response of the state government to the rising number of deaths and prevalence of addiction? Don’t allow any more treatment clinics.
State Senate bill 402, introduced by Georgia State Senator Jeff Mullis and signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal in April, placed a moratorium on the opening of new drug treatment centers in the state, a ban set to last one year. Since that date, not a single new narcotic treatment clinic has been approved.
As counterintuitive as the policy sounds, there is some to reason to it. Georgia’s 67 treatment clinics is an incredibly high number of clinics, far above Alabama’s 24 clinics or Tennessee’s 12. Even Florida, which boasts a population nearly twice Georgia’s, only has 65. Fears that the state’s treatment centers are simply serving the needs of other states are not unfounded, as local clinics are often frequented by the residents of neighboring states, where treatment is harder to come by. Even more alarming, the drug commonly used to treat opioid addiction in theses clinics is methadone, another opioid. Methadone has quickly become one of the most commonly abused drugs in the nation, as addicts swap one vice for another once they begin receiving treatment.
In addition, Georgia is receiving a slice of the $53 million that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is pouring into states with high opioid addiction and overdose rates. These funds are designed to assist in raising awareness, improving data collection, and funding treatment programs in the state. But despite the appearance of action that these initiatives provide, they fail to provide Georgia the help it truly needs to crack down on rampant opioid use.
For starters, SB 402 is an unfortunate sequel to Georgia House Bill 178, passed in 2013, which provided greater oversight and stricter regulations on pain clinics in the state. Pain clinics, offices where individuals are treated for severe pain and often prescribed painkillers, have pushed the state into its current position. Certain clinics, often called “pill mills,” have long been handing out prescriptions unnecessarily, raking in profits while patients either became addicted or fed preexisting dependencies.
The state’s decision to increase its scrutiny of pain clinics has seemed to have little effect on the overdose rate and still leaves Georgia with more treatment centers than any neighboring state. Over-prescription is as prevalent as ever, as 7.8 million pain prescriptions were written out in Georgia in 2015 alone, enough for every adult to receive a prescription. As for the federal money which the Peach State is receiving to “raise awareness of the dangers” of opioid abuse, it is almost laughable. Georgia does not need to become aware of the dangers, it is living them.
What really needs to be fixed in Georgia is not the number of treatment centers or how much money the pill-fighting budget has, but reforming how painkillers are treated by doctors in the state. Prescription medication is, after all, fueling the entire opioid frenzy. Painkillers top the list of most-abused drugs, along with heroin, which many turn to when pills such as Hydrocodone or Oxycodone are no longer available or affordable.
Georgia’s 2013 law was a start to the process of regulating clinics that prescribe highly addictive painkillers, but it has fallen short on several fronts. The application forms created to monitor the opening of new clinics ask about possible criminal background and require practicing physicians to enroll in the state’s drug monitoring program, but they do not inquire about the experience of the physicians set to work at the clinic and whether they have any practical prior knowledge of heavily controlled pain medicine. Such failures are how a Georgia doctor was able to wrongfully prescribe thousands of Oxycodone pills from a clinic in Tucker. Prior to working there, the doctor was a pediatrician with little experience of prescribing powerful pain medication.
Furthermore, Georgia’s prescription drug monitoring program, a database created by the state in 2011 to track prescriptions, lacks the necessary teeth to keep doctors in check. Though a physician can use the database to see if a patient has already been prescribed dangerous painkillers, doctors are not required by state law to consult the database before giving a prescription. This pitfall makes it easy for pill mill physicians to claim ignorance to a patient’s recent opioid refill, or for a careless doctor to forget to check their patient’s history.
These reforms, while possibly game-changing for fighting overdoses in the state, face an uphill battle against one of the nation’s most powerful lobbying groups. Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market opioids spent more nationwide over the last ten years fighting against restrictive policies than the formidable gun lobby did. In Georgia, the Pain Care Forum, a collection of painkiller interest groups, spent $1.2 million between 2006 and 2015. Just one pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, gave more than $600,000 to state politicians, including $16,100 to Gov. Deal.
For Georgia to reverse the trend of normalizing overdose and addiction, it must pursue policies that ensure that responsible, knowledgeable doctors are the ones prescribing substances such as opioids. Whether or not state politicians are being held back by inaction or big money interests, it is time to put the people of Georgia first and patch up the holes in the state’s prescription drug policy.