Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s Weekly Column: Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

noem press header kristi noem headshot May 21 2014Addressing the Opioid Epidemic
By Rep. Kristi Noem

It could start with a headache.  Or perhaps an injury from sports or even a military deployment.  Maybe it was a surgery and the prescription pain medication was supposed to be used only for a short time.  Eventually, however, the medicine you relied on to heal became the drug that made you sick.

Nationwide, around 15 million Americans abuse prescription drugs annually, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  Drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine – which as a category are called opioids – are frequently prescribed by doctors and some are even common in medicine cabinets and on bathroom counters across South Dakota.  If they are abused or happen to fall into the wrong hands, they can be fatal.

In 2013 alone, the latest year where reliable data is available, 32 South Dakotans died from opioid overdoses.  Nationwide, we lose one person to a drug overdose almost every 12 minutes.

Earlier this month, I voted to advance a series of bills that combat the opioid epidemic and help heal those suffering most.  It was a bipartisan effort that I’m incredibly proud of.

One of the bills, which I helped lead on, specifically addressed opioid addiction in mothers who are pregnant or just had their babies.  The number of infants born to mothers dependent on drugs nearly quadrupled from 2004 to 2013.  In South Dakota, there were more than 200 reported cases of opiate use by new moms between 2009 and 2013, according to a presentation given at SDSU in coordination with the South Dakota Department of Health.

The bill I cosponsored improved the support offered for counseling, pediatric health care, prenatal and postpartum health care, and parental training.  It also created a pilot program for state substance abuse agencies to figure out ways to bridge the gaps in service for pregnant and postpartum women who are addicted to drugs.

In addition to these provisions, I helped pass legislation to get first responders better access to the training and equipment needed for administering new medicines that can reverse opioid overdoses on the spot.  This is a goal the South Dakota legislature has been working toward as well, passing legislation in recent years to help give first responders and family members better access to these life-saving antidotes.  I’m hopeful our efforts on the federal level can support what’s already being done in the state.

Treating only the symptoms will not cure the problem though.  Approximately three-fourths of the world’s opioid prescription drugs are prescribed in the U.S. – even though we only comprise about 5 percent of the world’s population.  If this legislation becomes law, it would bring together federal agencies, state medical boards, health care professionals, and experts from pain and addiction-recovery communities, challenging them to come up with better practices to manage acute and chronic pain.

The Senate has also acted on a bipartisan legislative package to fight opioid addiction. With two strong bills on the table, the House and Senate will be coming together to work out the differences before getting it to the President to sign.  There’s momentum on both sides to get this done, so I’m optimistic new provisions will take effect soon.

No state – no community – is immune from opioid addictions. Whether in Sioux Falls, Pierre or Pine Ridge, families are struggling with it.  But while it is a chronic disease, it doesn’t have to be terminal.  I’m hopeful new federal resources will be available soon.  Still, to overcome the epidemic, all of us need to play a role.  If you or a family member is concerned about the use or abuse of prescription pain medication, please talk to your doctor immediately.  Help is out there.