With a state average of about 60 percent of all prescriptions, opioids are more widely available to Nebraskans than ever before.
“It’s easy for kids to go get these from medicine cabinets,” said Heather Jensen, a registered nurse and opioid abuse prevention coordinator for Community Connections. “People can steal them; others can sell extra pills for cash.”
A variety of efforts have begun to combat the epidemic at the federal, state and local levels.
A U.S. House of Representatives bill, HR 993, addresses prescribing patterns of U.S. doctors, further limiting which patients can receive opioid drugs. The bill would require the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to states for development of a peer review process to identify questionable prescribing patterns. Doctors would also be required to screen patients for potential drug abuse before prescribing opioid drugs.
But Jensen said this legislation could penalize physicians, and she doesn’t believe that’s the right response.
In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill, LB 931, on Wednesday that requires doctors to thoroughly educate parents of minors before the child can receive opioid medications.
“Addiction is born in that younger generation,” Jensen said. “(Opioid) abuse is present in our schools, which opens the door to worse drugs. Parents must be educated on the appropriate use for a child.”
Nebraska is also the first state to implement a drug monitoring program. Every medication used by every patient is added to a database daily. Jensen said it helps monitor use and abuse patterns.
Lincoln County recently received $50,000 in federal funds to fight opioid abuse. Jensen said the Community Connections group has been able to purchase more advertising, and Jensen has been educating physicians and community members through presentations.
Lincoln and surrounding counties have seen a rise in opioid-related problems, Jensen said. Sgt. Eric Rice with the CODE drug task force reported 42 arrests in 2017 regarding opioid possession.
“That doesn’t tell you about thefts by people who are high,” Jensen said. “Or domestic assault done by people who are high.”
In North Platte, Community Connections organizes monthly prescription collection days. Jensen said it is the longest-running community-based take-back program in the state.
Other similar events are organized by the Nebraska State Patrol.
Local law enforcement officers always attend the Community Connections take-backs, Jensen said. A medical representative is on hand to identify medications, and the NSP incinerates all the collected items — the EPA-recommended method for destroying prescription drugs.
These take-backs occur on the third Saturday of each month. The next event will be April 21.
“I’m so proud of our community for continuing the efforts,” Jensen said. “It’s an amazing effort.”
Jensen believes that if communities can embrace wellness together, they will make more progress.
“The biggest support tool we can provide as a community is to not stigmatize these people,” she said. “There’s a misconception that all addicts want to be high ... but there are people who want to get better; they realize it’s a problem.
“I want to open the door for people to have this conversation. It’s a very real problem, and addicts are very real people.”