Last week, Nebraska officials unveiled new prescribing guidelines for painkillers, the latest positive development to combat the opioid wave that continues to claim thousands of lives coast to coast.
The state can’t feasibly prevent all overdoses and deaths from opium-derived drugs, both licit and illicit. But both elected governmental and health industry leaders can keep taking smart steps to stem the tide as they’ve done to reduce the risk and make it harder to obtain dangerous amounts of opioids.
Through equal parts geography and policy, Nebraska has been fortunate to be among the states reporting the lowest number of per capita opioid hospitalizations and deaths, primarily from abuse of pain pills. Yet a large bust of fentanyl — a powerful, concentrated, illegal opioid whose use is on the rise — in Omaha this month highlights the wave has reached the state and will keep evolving.
So, too, has the state’s response.
The recently announced voluntary guidelines are designed to help doctors properly manage patients’ pains with opioids and alternatives. They were coupled a drug-monitoring program that launched Jan. 1 to require all prescriptions of controlled substances be entered in a state database.
With the former aiming to combat overprescribing of opioids and the latter designed to raise red flags on both doctor shopping and pill mills, Nebraska has added more tools in 2017 to its already well-stocked arsenal to fight this silent scourge. Other partnerships have increased access to naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose, and increased addiction training for medical school students.
"The people who are getting addicted to opioids are not in a generic place called the United States," Gov. Pete Ricketts said last week. "They're in our local communities, and that's where the problem needs to be addressed."
Nebraska had the luck and luxury to be proactive instead of reactive — and the efforts of Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and other state leaders have been critical as national aid remains frustratingly slow to materialize.
The federal government must end its dithering and declare opioid abuse a national emergency. Doing so would open up access to sorely needed federal funds to combat an outbreak that killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nebraska, though, accounts for a disproportionately small figure. The state Department of Health and Human Services indicated at least 54 of Nebraska’s 149 overdose deaths in 2015 were opioid-related. Similarly sized West Virginia, the crossroads of the crisis, reported opioids were involved in 638 overdose deaths that same year, according to the state’s Health Statistics Center.
Nothing guarantees Nebraska will be able to avoid the worst of the opioid crisis. But the state’s vigilance continues to offer the state a better chance to weather the storm.