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Senate bill aims to tackle painkiller overuse, abuse

New efforts to stop America's opioid abuse problem

A growing number of law and health care agencies are working to make naloxone (Narcan), available without a prescription. The drug is used to treat an opioid emergency, such as an overdose or a possible overdose of a prescription painkiller or, mo
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A growing number of law and health care agencies are working to make naloxone (Narcan), available without a prescription. The drug is used to treat an opioid emergency, such as an overdose or a possible overdose of a prescription painkiller or, mo

At the state Capitol, some new legislation is taking aim at the use and abuse of the strong painkillers that lead to addiction for some Georgians.

Addiction for many people starts with a prescription for a powerful, but legal, “opioid.” That’s a group of drugs that includes oxycodone. Some patients get hooked and eventually turn to another drug in the same family: heroin.

One new plan from a powerful Republican state senator involves trying to make it easier to stop that progression.

“It’s an omnibus bill that addresses not only the heroin overdose epidemic but (also) prescription meds,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, author of Senate Bill 81. She’s also chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and she chaired an opioid abuse state Senate study committee.

Unterman wants closer state regulation of Georgia’s 70 methadone clinics: places that offer the synthetic drug that can help people beat an addiction to opioid drugs. The details about setting up minimum standards for such clinics are set up in her bill, along with Senate Bill 88, by the powerful Senate Rules Committee chair, Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

“The majority of them are very good, but there’s a small percentage that are very bad,” Unterman said.

She said some clinics don’t work to get people off methadone. “Because they’re making $400 to $600 a month” by supplying people with the drug, she said.

But some clinic operators have argued that people can live a normal life while using methadone, and that moving people off methadone should not be lawmakers’ priority.

Unterman’s bill also requires all opioid prescriptions go into a state database, part of what’s called the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. Doctors would be able to see if a patient has recently gotten an opioid prescription.

“What it does is prevent doctor hopping. It prevents these legal drugs from becoming street drugs and sold at exorbitant prices,” Unterman said.

The monitoring program has the potential to be an important part of the effort to reduce prescription drug abuse, the president of the Medical Association of Georgia, Dr. Steven M. Walsh, said in a written statement.

But the association doesn’t support that part of the bill because, Walsh wrote, “Physicians should not be required to check the PDMP, the bill covers an impractical number of substances, and the penalties for physicians are unreasonable and punitive.”

He also said doctors report regular glitches in the system.

But the association does support another part of the bill — permanently allowing over-the-counter sales of naxolone, a drug that can reverse heroin overdoses.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee

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