Lawmaker tackles opioid abuse

A bill proposed in the Alaska State Legislature would require more discussion about addiction before patients take home an opioid prescription.

Pre-filed by Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage), House Bill 268 would require medical professionals licensed to prescribe opioids to explain the reason for the prescription, offer non-opioid alternatives, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using the prescription for shorter periods of time, and warn patients about the risks of addiction.

The proposed legislation also requires doctors to present a written statement prepared by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services providing information on risks of addiction and additional health dangers presented by the drugs.

Most patients don’t know how dangerous opioids are, or the extent of the connection between prescription opioids and heroin addiction, Gara said.

Approximately 75 percent of heroin users begin their addiction with prescription opioids, according to National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Addiction doesn’t just affect individuals, but can have long-term social costs — such as the break-up of families, loss of jobs and livelihoods, and the empowering of criminal enterprises, Gara said.

“This is the information we want people to know so that they can protect themselves from future addictions,” he said.

A 2017 report prepared for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority estimated that drug abuse in Alaska cost the economy $1.22 billion in 2015.

In 2016, opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and opioid overdose deaths were five times higher than in 1999.

In Alaska, opioid overdoses make up the bulk of overdose deaths.

Of the 123 total drug overdose deaths in 2016, 89 were due to opioid use, compared to 86 the year before, according to the Alaska Division of Public Health 2016 Health Analytics and Vital Statistics report.

The prevalence of opioid addiction led Gov. Bill Walker to declare the state’s opioid epidemic a public health crisis in February 2017. The declaration established a statewide Overdose Response Program and allowed wider distribution of opioid blocking drugs.

Although prescription opioids still made up the largest section of opioid overdose in 2016, heroin-related deaths have risen significantly in the last decade. In 2008, seven people died from heroin overdoses. In 2016, that number was 45, according to a Health Analytics and Vital Records report released by the Alaska Division of Public Health, Department of Health and Social Services.

The roots of the heroin epidemic can be traced to the wide availability of prescription opioids, Tom Chard, executive director of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association, said.

Many people who started their addictions with prescription pain killers have now switched to heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to get, he said.

The Alaska Behavioral Health Association, which works to improve abuse and mental health treatment services in Alaska, helped provide feedback on the legislation as it was being drafted, Chard said.

The measure isn’t meant to get between a doctor and the patient, but to open up a conversation so that patients better understand the potential side effects of medication and feel comfortable discussing any concerns with a doctor, Chard said.

“We felt bringing more information to bear is an important step in trying to get a handle on what’s going on out there,” he said.

Even as the state works to address the opioid crisis, health providers and the community must be on guard for the rise of addictions to other drugs, like methamphetamine, Chard said.

“Let’s not forget the next drug is right down the road,” Chard said.

Reach Erin Thompson at

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