As a state senator and pharmacist, I appreciate Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s recent op-ed in The Tennessean entitled “Why Tennessee is avoiding litigation (for now) against opioid makers.” It lays out a learned and thoughtful approach to hold responsible parties accountable for this serious public health emergency.
Too many of us have seen up close the horrors of the opioid addiction crisis. It is tearing families apart and straining the seams of towns and counties across Tennessee. As a member of the Senate Health and General Welfare Committee and of Gov. Bill Haslam’s work group on this issue, I can assure you comprehensive legislation is forthcoming to address this epidemic during the 2018 legislative session.
The opioid crisis we face is not just in Tennessee. It is a nationwide problem. Telling is the statistic that Americans account for approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, but consume 90 percent of the world’s narcotic painkillers.
Criminals who divert prescription medicine, sell opioids on the black market, or smuggle opioids from China, Russia and Mexico must be stopped and punished to the fullest extent possible. We must address the overprescribing of opioids through education of our physicians and pharmacists, and encourage non-addictive treatment options. We can reduce the number of pills per prescription to keep unused opiates out of the hands of abusers. We can also provide more effective treatment alternatives, which are critical to turn back the tide of addiction.
While it critical to tackle opioid abuse head on, we must also look at how this epidemic began in the discussion about legal accountability. In the early 1980s and 1990s, pharmaceutical manufacturers spent millions of dollars convincing prescribers and pharmacists that opioids were non-addictive and suitable for treating pain. Doctors and pharmacists were instructed to prevent pain, rather than treat it. In fact, the rating of pain became the fifth vital sign in hospital emergency rooms across the nation.
We should have zero tolerance for any physician, pharmacist or prescriber who knowingly misprescribes or overprescribes their patient. At the same time, filing lawsuits against law-abiding pharmacies, clinics, wholesale distributors who handle logistics and/or physicians is the wrong prescription for Tennessee. The focus should be on those who have deceived the medical community with false information, which in turn is a root cause of our current problem.
Doctors and pharmacies should not have to bear the financial burden to prove their innocence if they were faithfully abiding by the law and the standards of practice. Yet, that could be part of the end result if lawsuits are not handled appropriately.
Careful investigation, which focuses litigation on whether drug manufacturers have engaged in deceptive practices in marketing and selling opioids is the best approach. It is also the most optimal means in which to reclaim needed dollars. In turn, these funds can assist in treatment for people in need and allows our states and local governments to address the economic burdens borne in dealing with this epidemic.
However, I hope General Slatery, mayors, and others who participate in litigation will consider the unintended and costly consequences it could have on the over 11,000 licensed pharmacists whom have followed the laws and standards of care in faithfully delivering services for their patients.
Ferrell Haile is Deputy Speaker of the State Senate and serves on the Senate Health and Welfare, Senate Education and Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committees. He represents Sumner, Trousdale and part of Davidson County in District 18 of the Tennessee Senate.