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Public Sector Needs a Mix of Tech, Policy Tools to Combat the Opioid Epidemic

The solutions start with data sharing, said Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel at the IT Solutions Management conference.

PHOENIX — The severity of the nation’s opioid epidemic is only increasing, and in response, state and local governments are hunting for both tech and policy tools to combat the problem.  

Opioid addiction played a central role at this year’s IT Solutions Management conference. The four-day gathering brought state and federal officials into the heart of downtown Phoenix on Sept. 21 to discuss different approaches to contain the deadly spread of overdoses.

Joined by a representative from the National Governors Association (NGA), Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel delivered more than a few candid insights on his state’s efforts to confront opioid addiction. Hazel said the situation has grown so dire and expanded so rapidly that punitive measures alone cannot handle the problem anymore. Looking at fatalities, Virginia now has more deaths from opiate overdoses than from motor vehicle accidents and gun violence.

New solutions and resources are something Virginia’s police force has requested time and time again. “One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is when law enforcement comes in and says, ‘We cannot arrest our way out of this,’” Hazel said.

The likely answer, he conjectured, is one that requires a mixture of data intelligence for near real-time tracking, policymaking and collaborations with data-sharing agreements between medical and law enforcement services at the state and local levels.

“It starts with data sharing…” Hazel said. “All of this has to be in the same ecosystem to get really quick, actionable results and have a [data analytics] dashboard.”

Anonymized data could track the amount of legally prescribed opioids for pain relief to reduce overprescription by medical providers — a significant problem. Hard figures could also identify populations and geographies most impacted and susceptible by tabulating, for example, the use of naloxone, a drug that counteracts the effects of opioid overdose.

However, agencies solve the issue, it's clear that something needs to be done. NGA’s representative, who spoke on background, highlighted a publicly available road map that the organization has drafted with input from field and policy experts across the nation.

Key statistics from the report note that every day 78 people die from an overdose related to prescription opioids and heroin, and in 2012, health-care providers prescribed enough opioids for every American adult to have his or her own pill bottle. The consequence, NGA said, is that Medicaid — the most common source of funding for opioid hospitalizations — has seen its costs quadruple between 2002 and 2012. Complicating matters further, fentanyl, a quick-acting synthetic opioid pain medication, is growing in popularity and may soon become a common illegal narcotic.

“I see fentanyl as the new meth, because you’ll be able to make it at your house without the dangers of the explosions that meth labs had,” Hazel said. “This is a real, real challenge for us going forward.”

Among its lengthy list of recommendations, the NGA called for stricter guidelines on opioid prescribers, removing methadone from Medicaid’s preferred drug lists for pain relief, increasing access to naloxone and boosting the reach of state prescription drug monitoring — all initiatives that would require greater data from the health-care industry. Hazel said the trick is convincing, or perhaps compelling, the industry to do so since it doesn’t always see it in its “best interest” due to the heightened accountability.

Culturally there is much to be done as well, and Hazel went on to say that, at least for the time being, a major amount of public outreach and education is needed.

People must be able to discern the difference between “legal prescriptions” and “safe consumption” — not always the same thing; patients and health-care providers must pivot away from a reliance on opioids as quick-fix remedies; and socially the U.S. as a whole must learn to be more sympathetic to those who suffer, or have suffered, from addiction. Employers often reject job applicants with past drug convictions, and family members and friends might cut support when it’s needed most.

“We have to recognize that those who are addicted, are addicted,” Hazel said. “And they are with us. And they are going to be with us if all goes well. They have to be able to have a life and to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.