Containing COVID-19 is rightly our country’s priority at present, but another public health threat — opioid addiction — still looms large in much of the country. Over the past decade Nebraskans, to their credit, have joined together multiple times to take action against it. The latest step came this week with action at the State Legislature.
Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha won final approval for her proposal to create a state fund for money Nebraska may receive from a federal Department of Justice lawsuit against opioid manufacturers accused of deceptive advertising. The verdict or settlement will set the exact use of the money, which will surely be directed to address opioid addiction. Howard’s bill requires an annual report on how the funds were distributed and the outcomes achieved.
During her eight years in the Legislature, Howard, the current chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, has worked with colleagues on a variety of bills to address the opioid problem. Such work builds on initial steps taken in 2011 when Howard’s mother, Gwen — a state senator at the time —sponsored legislation to begin a prescription drug monitoring program in Nebraska.
The Howard family has direct experience with the terrible devastation that opioid addiction can cause. In 2009, Sara’s older sister, Carrie, fatally overdosed from painkillers after a series of recoveries and relapses. Her family later discovered that by doctor shopping, she was able to get prescriptions for 4,500 pills a month — nearly 150 pills a day — before her death from an overdose.
Thanks to measures approved by the Legislature, Nebraska requires pharmacies to report all narcotics dispensed in the state, to help thwart pharmacy-shopping to feed addictions. The state also sets a limit on opioid prescriptions for minors, with some exceptions. Strong work by Attorney General Doug Peterson and the State Department of Health and Human Services has contributed greatly to the effort. HHS oversees treatment programs and has issued voluntary prescription guidelines for medical professionals to reduce excessive reliance on opioids.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Creighton University School of Medicine address pain-management issues in their training programs. As part of a national effort, physicians, dentists and insurers in Nebraska are making a concerted effort to boost patients’ awareness about opioid use and proper disposal of the drugs.
Nebraskans can take pride that they’ve taken these steps over the years to help protect our state from this menace. But the challenge is enormous. Nebraskans must remain vigilant and continue the fight.