More than 100 people die every day from an opioid overdose, and millions of Americans are struggling with addiction. Scott Walters is with the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth — and he's leading a new effort aimed at trying to attack the opioid crisis.
On what the committee will be doing:
The HEALing Communities Study is the largest single effort by the National Institutes of Health to address the opiate crisis. It's supposed to serve as a national model for addressing the crisis. It involves four states, 67 communities, and half of the communities are going to be randomized to receive a full battery of interventions starting later this year consisting of things like distribution of naloxone, which is an opiate reverser, as well as expanded linkages to treatment and also reduce supply through prescription drug monitoring programs and take-back programs.
On the program's objectives:
Well the end goal is, first of all, to demonstrate that we can reduce opioid related deaths by 40%. So that's the first goal. And secondly to serve as a national model. So as we're doing that, we're creating materials that can be useful in other places.
So you might be creating training materials or supply chains or particular combinations of treatment you think will be especially effective. You might be creating different ways of monitoring data, receiving data and breaking down overdose rates per ZIP code, per county, per city. ... How do you know where those hotspots are? Monitoring what kind of pills go out. How do you know whether doctors are prescribing? And finding a system that is common across the country that's been particularly tricky.
On the origin of the opioid crisis:
The problem began in the 1990s where a group of pharmaceutical companies marketed a new class of opioid pills as a way to deal with long term chronic pain. And they're making claims, which turned out to be unfounded at the time, that long-term opiate pills were not addictive.
So the total number of pills greatly increased since the 1990s. And since 2015 more and more people are dying as a result of the synthetic opiates like fentanyl.
On what Texas is doing to address the crisis:
Texas compared to other states has relative low overdose rates. So that's one thing in our corner. We have rates of about 5 per 100,000 persons per year, as opposed to the national rate that's about triple that — about 15 per 100,000 people die of opiate overdose. So that's good.
On the other hand, rates are increasing in Texas and particularly — although prescription overdose rates as a result of prescription drug use have leveled off — rates of overdose from heroin have doubled in the last decade, and with fentanyl they've tripled in the last decade.
So there's a couple of things that Texas has done recently that I think is moving in the right direction. One is a new prescription drug monitoring program that actually starts Sept. 1 — a new Texas law that requires a physician that is prescribing opiates or benzodiazepines or a couple other drug classes to check with the state website to determine whether the patient is pill shopping or whether the person might be diverting, so getting way more than they need. So that's the first thing, a brand new prescription drug monitoring program.
The second thing is that Texas now has a standing order for naloxone. Naloxone, or sometimes called Narcan, is an opiate overdose antidote. It's available both as an injection as well as a nasal spray. The nasal spray can be picked up from any pharmacy that stocks it in Texas without a prescription. So it's covered under your insurance.
Scott Walters is the chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.