OPINION: Lawmakers need to act now opioid epidemic

For over three and a half decades, the Safer Communities Ministry has helped transform the lives of North Carolinians struggling with addiction with life skills training and spiritual guidance.

Daryl Oliver

In recent years, more and more of the individuals we’ve helped have turned to us due to opioid addiction, an increasingly harmful epidemic that is devastating families across the country.

In addition to the spiritual counseling and life skills that we teach, we believe more must be done to offer education on and alternatives to the highly addictive prescription opioids for those dealing with severe pain. This is especially important because the opioid epidemic has reached such alarming levels, and because medical advancements are beginning to transform the way that we should think about pain management.

Later this year, it’s highly likely that federal regulators will approve the first non-addictive, non-opioid medication for public use. If used correctly, non-opioid alternatives will enable us to alleviate patients’ pain without exposing them to the dangers of addiction — shielding them from developing a dependency on highly powerful opioids and likely saving countless lives in the process.

So what can we do to ensure we leverage these incredible new treatments? For starters, our lawmakers can pass legislation to ensure they’re available and affordable to the public.

In Congress, lawmakers are beginning to take proactive steps to do this. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House introduced the Alternatives to Prevent Addiction in the Nation (Alternatives to PAIN) Act. If passed, it would make sure that beneficiaries of Medicare, a federal health insurance program that provides coverage for seniors, have access to non-opioid pain management alternatives without facing price barriers that cause them to resort to opioids.

This is particularly important given the overlap occurring in opioid abuse among America’s seniors. Later in life, seniors typically have a heightened chance of relying on prescriptions for severe pain management due to injury or recovering from medical operations.

The Alternatives to PAIN Act is great in that it makes these treatments more accessible to a highly vulnerable demographic that might rely on them more, because we shouldn’t force seniors dealing with pain to rely on highly addictive opioids because they can’t afford the cost of safer, non-addictive alternatives.

I was glad to see North Carolina’s own Rep. Don Davis sponsor the Alternatives to PAIN Act and I urge the entirety of our state’s congressional delegation to support the bill given the positive role it will play in combating opioid addiction in North Carolina.

State lawmakers can take action too. For example, elected leaders in Raleigh could introduce legislation that makes these treatments more accessible and affordable to those enrolled in North Carolina’s state-administered Medicaid Program, similar to what the Alternatives to PAIN Act does for Medicare. Another possible course of action is to pass a state law that increases education about these safer treatment options.

Either way, state lawmakers should consider how we can best use these new medicines to help prevent the spread of opioid addiction that is hurting families across our state.

Addressing the growing opioid epidemic should be a priority for lawmakers on both the federal and state level. I encourage elected leaders in both D.C. and Raleigh to support efforts to make non-opioid alternatives more available, including through the Alternatives to PAIN Act.

Daryl Oliver is executive director of Safer Communities Ministry Rehabilitation in Monroe, which offers programs for residents of Union, Stanly and Anson counties.