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VOL. 133 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 5, 2018

Battling Opioids

Shelby County to launch public health campaign this month

By Bill Dries

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Later this month, Shelby County government will roll out a public health effort led by the Shelby County Health Department to battle opioid addiction. “We’re taking a very long view of this. It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell told Shelby County Commission members Wednesday, Jan. 3, during committee sessions.

During their first committee sessions of 2018, Shelby County commissioners learned about a public health campaign aimed at fighting the opioid epidemic. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“But we want to be able to go into this initiative with a united front,” he said of the effort, which is to debut before Jan. 15.

He also plans to propose a budget specifically for the effort and seek funding for it from the commission.

Luttrell and the commission have been battling in court since late last year over opioid litigation – and specifically over who has the right to push the legal pursuit of opioid manufacturers and distributors in such a lawsuit.

But Wednesday’s discussion, at commissioners’ first committee sessions of the new year, was noticeably different in that regard.

“We appreciate your support and we will work with everyone,” health department director Alisa Haushalter told commissioners. “Things are evolving and moving quickly.”

Haushalter also came with statistics on opioid overdose deaths in Shelby County from 2013 to 2016. Over those four years, 474 people died in Shelby County from overdoses, according to the health department data.

She broke down those deaths by commission districts, with District 5, which covers East Memphis into unincorporated Cordova, having the most – 58.

District 5 is represented by commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer, who in November authorized attorneys to file a civil lawsuit in Circuit Court on behalf of county government naming two dozen opioid manufacturers and distributors as defendants.

The lawsuit, later ratified by the commission, touched off a legal dispute with Luttrell.

Shafer, who was not at Wednesday’s committee session, has been vocal in saying Luttrell and his administration haven’t acted aggressively or swiftly enough in combating the crisis.

Van Turner represents District 12, which saw the fewest opioid overdose deaths between 2013 and 2016. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Luttrell, without referring to the dispute Wednesday, said again that the litigation will take time to work itself out, most likely toward some kind of settlement, and that his administration is working with the Tennessee attorney general’s office on that part of the issue.

He drew a distinction between that and a public health approach to the problem that treats addiction as a public health issue more than a public safety issue.

District 7 – covering Midtown into north Memphis and represented by Melvin Burgess – saw the second-highest number of opioid overdose deaths from 2013 to 2016, with 51. Another 50 people died of opioid overdoses in the four-year period in District 6, which covers Frayser and Raleigh and is represented by Willie Brooks.

The fewest overdose deaths by district was in Van Turner’s District 12, covering south Memphis and Hickory Hill, with 14.

Haushalter said the public campaign to raise awareness of addiction and promote steps to seek treatment will be tailored to different parts of the city and county and will include small breakout meetings by neighborhoods.

Commissioner David Reaves said it is important to realize the differences in those communities and the nature of the drug problem in each.

“The plan may be different based upon the community that we are in,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is throw a town hall out there just to have one. I don’t want to waste people’s time.”

Haushalter said the campaign will recognize that many opioid addictions begin with a legal prescription.

“Something may be by prescription that may have been purchased illegally,” she also noted. “In many cases, it’s been a combination.”

Brooks also pushed for efforts around pharmacy break-ins and robberies.

“Then this drug is on the street,” he said. “I’m concerned with the number of robberies that have happened with the pharmacy companies. What proactive steps are they taking to address this issue?”

Other parts of the campaign include acknowledging that citizens not addicted but surrounded by the problem may not know what an opioid is. There also will be an effort to encourage those with legitimate prescriptions to keep track of how much they have, secure the supply and properly dispose of what they don’t need any longer.

Commissioner Terry Roland said the number of deaths doesn’t take into account what he believes is a far greater number of citizens who may have survived past overdoses but continue to struggle with addiction.

“A majority of it is starting from these pain clinics,” he said. “They’ll write you a prescription and they’ll keep writing you a prescription as long as you play the game the way they want you to.”

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