To curb emerging opioid crisis, state seeks proactive measures

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The opioid epidemic nationally has prompted the declaration of a national emergency to tackle the problem.

In Hawaii, there's some good news: Prescription opioid death rates are among the lowest in the nation.

But advocates stress that the rate is rising, and they're sounding the alarm now — before the problem gets worse.

Over the last 17 years, the number of opioid drug fatalities in Hawaii has more than doubled. There were 27 deaths in 2000 and 60 in 2016.

Dan Galanis, injury epidemiologist with the state Health Department, said the increase in deaths is concerning, but just part of the problem.

Every year, about 400 people end up in hospital ERs with non-fatal opioid overdoses.

"I would say it's at a crisis level," said Eddie Mersereau, the department's chief of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse Division. "We don't want to have the same kind of reactive response that we did, back in the 90s, with methamphetamine."

He added that people get prescribed opioids for valid reasons. But the powerful drugs are extremely addictive. "The longer they're on those pain medications, the higher their risk of becoming addicted to those pain medications," he said. "Oftentimes what happens is they end up going to the black market for those opioids and then they're out on the streets looking for heroin and then that just snowballs into a bigger problem and bigger issue."

Former addict Jean Mooney isn't shy talking about when she was an addict.

She served four years behind bars after getting arrested for doing drugs.

Mooney's drug of choice was heroin, but he also abused prescription pain medications, too.

"In that time we had Tylox, which was a capsule, and you could pour four of them into a drink and drink it down," he said.

Mooney is sober now and an AIDS outreach worker.

She said she knew many people who got hooked on opioids after getting a prescription for pain.

Hawaii ranks 43rd in the nation for its rate of opioid-related deaths. West Virginia is ranked the highest, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But officials say they're not waiting around for the problem to get worse to justify action.

One tool at their disposal: A prescription drug monitoring program under the Department of Public Safety.

"So essentially every time an opiate prescription is dispensed in the state that is entered by the dispensing pharmacist, " Galanis said, "and they can sort of be the gate keeper of whether that prescription is dispensed or its denied."

Nurse Christina Wang is on the front line of the issue with her work for clients in the Community Health Outreach Work to Prevent AIDS Project (CHOW Project). She said she thinks that opioid is becoming a bigger problem in the community.

'We see everybody, from people who are chronically homeless to people who show up in their Mercedes, to exchange syringes," Wang said.

In July, Gov. David Ige committed $10 million to fight opioid addiction statewide. Part of that effort, Mersereau said, will be through educating patients and clinicians who prescribe opiates and also by focusing on addiction as a chronic illness.

"Nationwide we have a focus on opioids and that there's an opioid crisis," Mersereau said. "But on the flip side, too, we have to look at it as just one of many substances of abuse so we want to focus on the disease."

After all, since 2007, the leading cause of fatal injuries in Hawaii — even more than motor vehicle accidents and falls — has been drug poisoning.

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